Sheffield hospital patient Winnie Collins is galloping ahead in her fight against a movement disorder - ever since starting a physiotherapy treatment unlike those offered anywhere else on the NHS.
The four-year-old undergoes hippotherapy, a special activity which uses the movements of a highly-trained horse to improve a child’s strength and mobility.
Sessions are run at Smeltings Farm Riding Centre on Ringinglow Road by specialists from the Sheffield Children’s NHS Foundation Trust’s Ryegate Centre.
Only two organisations in the NHS currently offer the treatment - Sheffield Children’s and one trained physiotherapist in Scotland.
Winnie - who has a condition similar to spastic diplegia, which affects her legs and ability to walk - was almost three years old when she started hippotherapy with practitioner Kate Mackintosh.
Now aged four, Winnie has carried on horse riding after her sessions ended. Her parents have noticed the difference in her walking abilities and she can even swim 25 metres independently.
Kate said: “The ‘fun’ factor is a huge part of delivering a successful hippotherapy session. It means that the children don’t realise they are having therapy. There’s a lot of play involved!
“There is a lot of interaction and bonding with the horse too, which children can find easier to relate to. It is a sensory experience that they don’t get anywhere else.”
Children have treatment over six weeks, with their exercises carried out while they sit or lie on the horse.
The sessions are led by a specially-trained physiotherapist, while a handler controls the speed and direction of the horse and a third person walks alongside the animal to assist or support the child as required.
Zac - the horse used at Smeltings Farm - was rigorously assessed and selected for his temperament and individual movement quality.
Kate explained: “Zac is a big horse, which gives a smoothness of movement and a broad base for us to work on. We also choose horses that are quiet and mild-mannered.”
Hippotherapy is still relatively rare in the UK, with only 30 qualified physiotherapists, but there is growing interest in other parts of the world. As a result, Kate has been invited to Taiwan next month to speak at the Horses in Education and Therapy International’s World Congress.