Feb. 24, 2020

By David Miller

A female university researcher poses for a photo next to a horse
Dr. Laura Hopson will be honored in March for her service and research at The Red Barn, where she and Dr. Amy Traylor have been studying the effectiveness of equine-assisted therapies.

For children with disabilities, treatment and therapy can become mundane and repetitive.

Spontaneity is fun, but there’s not much of it in physical therapy or doctor’s appointments, where children are also isolated from their peers.

Therapeutic horseback riding, though, is a unique intervention that’s a “big deal” for children, says Dr. Laura Hopson, UA associate professor of social work.

“[Children] are in therapy, but it feels like fun for them,” Hopson said. “Horseback riding is something special that not many of their friends get to do.”

Hopson is currently a researcher in residence at The Red Barn, which hosts therapy programs in Leeds. There, she and Dr. Amy Traylor evaluate the effectiveness of various programs for children with physical, emotional and developmental disabilities, as well as siblings of children with disabilities.

“I’ve volunteered for therapeutic riding programs since I was in high school,” Hopson said, “but it’s still meaningful to hear parents say how transformative these programs are for children. That’s the most rewarding thing.”

Hopson and Traylor have been conducting research and assisting in equine-therapy programs at The Red Barn for more than two years. The Red Barn announced recently that Traylor and Hopson have been named the 2020 recipients of The Red Barn’s “Anita Cowart Mentor of the Year Award.” The award recipients, chosen by The Red Barn’s staff, serve as mentors to the staff and improve the quality of service at The Red Barn.

“Amy and Laura, as a team, have done that in a variety of ways,” said Grace Butler, public relations coordinator for The Red Barn. “The biggest has been their willingness to do whatever is needed. We have never given (the award) to two people, but we couldn’t pick just one of them.”

A female university researcher and four female students pose for a photo near a horse stable.
Dr. Amy Traylor, second from left, seen here with four UA students from her “intro to equine-assisted therapies” class in Summer 2019.

The UA School of Social Work began a focus on equine-assisted therapies nearly three years ago under retired dean Vikki Vandiver. The School was keen to form research partnerships and introduce students to equine therapy, eventually connecting with The Red Barn. Since then, the partnership has included field placements and service work by students in “intro to equine-assisted therapies,” a class Traylor has taught in previous summers.

“It’s been a great mix of teaching, research and service,” Traylor said.

Traylor said she’s “honored” to receive the Anita Coward award, but that it underlies the impact of the “incredible mentorship” they’ve received from people in the equine-assisted therapy community, both in Alabama and across the country.

And while Traylor and Hopson are still analyzing data from The Red Barn, Hopson said some of improvements in children are already clear: better core strength, muscle control, decision-making ability and communications skills.

And while the rich anecdotes they collect from parents further underscore just how impactful the programs are, “there’s a real need” to show why this type of intervention is effective, rather than another form of therapy that’s less expensive, Hopson said.

“You’re sitting on this huge, powerful animal, and you’re a small child with a physical disability,” Hopson said. “You’re developing a lot of confidence and doing something not many kids get to do. It’s truly amazing.”

Hopson and Traylor will be presented the award at The Red Barn’s “What Horses Can Teach Us Luncheon,” on March 3 at The Club, Inc. in Birmingham.