Dr. Robin Langerhans owns six horses and three dogs. While she loves them dearly, they’re much more than pets - they’re therapy animals.
Langerhans, a doctor of physical therapy, offers programs that provide adaptive riding as a recreational activity and also offers services for physical, occupational and speech therapy using equine movement.
Langerhans started Making Strides of Virginia in 2017 after moving from Pennsylvania to the Richmond area. This 501(c)(3) organization offers adaptive riding and horseback riding lessons to people of all ages for recreation.
At the same time, she began offering hippotherapy, or therapy involving equine movement, through Making Strides, a for-profit company she had operated for nearly 20 years in the Philadelphia area. The for-profit entity is for clients for whom hippotherapy is prescribed or recommended as part of a physical, occupational or speech therapy regimen. Hippotherapy is covered by some medical insurances.
All Making Strides programs help clients and participants improve balance, increase muscle tone, and develop healthy habits. “The horse is like a therapy ball,” said Langerhans, who also is owner and CEO of Brandywine Valley Consultants. “The horse is your equipment, your therapy tool.”
She explained that a horse’s pelvis moves almost identically to a human’s – therefore, riding a horse accurately simulates human walking and can assist clients with regaining balance and improving gait and motor control.
All humans are drawn to horses and dogs, so interacting with therapy animals encourages communication and emotional connection, which helps clients build confidence in their ability to overcome challenges, Langerhans said.
“As a sophisticated herd animal, horses immediately begin building relationships with people as members of their herd,” Langerhans said. “Horses are soothing, gentle animals. They have a unique ability to sense emotions. They are straightforward in their interactions without judgment or blame. Their presence alone can be healing.”
This instant bond means just petting a horse fosters a connection that helps clients communicate better. Grooming offers added physical benefits because of the stooping and stretching required.
Joshua Thrower, 8, of Midlothian started hippotherapy when Making Strides first opened. Riding provides opportunities for Joshua to improve his balance and posture, and strengthen his core, said his mother, Monika.
“Before hippotherapy, he couldn’t sit up on his own – now he’s able to sit unassisted and to have more control with his movements overall,” she said. “The harmony between the two of them is just beautiful.”
George Budraski, 12, of Chester began riding two years ago on the recommendation of his physical and occupational therapists. “The first day he rode, they had him lying on the horse, and sitting backward and forward,” said his mother, Lara. “Since he’s been riding regularly, I see an improvement in his posture and endurance. It’s a lot more work to ride a horse than it looks!”
Langerhans’ horses – all riding horses as well as therapy animals – include two Halfingers, Teddy Bear and Tucker; a Gypsy Vanner draft horse, Corsia, that also pulls a carriage; two Rocky Mountain gaited horses, Sterling and Rowan; and Ranger, a rescued quarter horse.
The horses live at a farm off Nash Road, where Langerhans rents barn and pasture space. The therapy programs are based at Chesterfield County fairgrounds, in cooperation with the Parks and Recreation Department.
Before the COVID-19 quarantine, Langerhans saw 30 clients three days a week, offering adaptive riding in 5- to 8-week sessions. Physical distancing requirements put the hippotherapy on hold. “We have to be in close proximity – we can’t be six feet apart,” she explained.
Lara Budraski praised Making Strides for its focus on safety. “All of the volunteers are great with ensuring George is safe, but also pushing him to challenge himself and making it fun.”
In addition to her therapy clients, which include children with special needs and injured military personnel and veterans, Langerhans gives riding lessons to those without disabilities. Many of these are siblings of her young therapy clients; Langerhans explained that siblings sometimes feel slighted by attention devoted to a disabled brother or sister. “This gets the siblings involved,” Langerhans said.
Langerhans uses her therapy dogs – Shiloh Shepherd Odin and miniature Schnauzers Remington and Jackson – in her work with senior adults in care facilities, and to offer comfort and encourage interaction through physical contact with other clients in a treatment known as Animal Assisted Therapy. She hopes to train more therapy dogs in partnership with the farm family who cares for her horses.
She said good therapy animal has a gentle nature and remains calm around children. “You just know if a dog can be a therapy dog. You know that with horses, too. They’re tolerant. They really relate to kids. Horses are so in tune with our body language.”