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How Horse Therapy Benefits Children With Special Needs

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- Children with special needs are getting physical therapy with the help of horses, benefiting both physically and emotionally.

It didn't take long for 5-year-old Giovani to believe what his riding instructor was telling him. And judging by the faces of other riders at Endeavor Therapeutic Horsemanship, these special needs kids were doing something they never thought they'd be able to do.

"It's cool. I find horses very interesting. They're like people," said 18-year-old Isiah Torres.

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All these riders are part of the adaptive sports program at the Hospital for Special Surgery. Some of the children have cerebral palsy, others have autism, CBS2's Dr. Max Gomez reported Tuesday.

The therapists there have found that this kind of controlled horseback riding helps the kids with their posture, balance and flexibility.

"The rhythmic pattern that the way that horses move mimic the way that us as humans walk," said Dr. Michelle Yang of the Hospital For Special Surgery. "That side to side motion and kind of forward and backward motion that horses have kind of helps to relax the body and helps kids actually and carry it over to walking normal over ground."

Regular physical therapy might be able to accomplish the same thing, but it's not nearly as much fun.

"I think it's more fun to do it on a horse because it's like you're doing exercises while you're going to your destination," said 11-year-old Edwin Torres.

Brooklyn MacDonald spends a lot of time in her wheelchair. Her mother says horse therapy has made a big difference.

"She's able to actually control her body, control her upper body, control her legs, and a very important component is for her to listen, follow the instructions then to also pay attention to where she's going," Andrea McDonald said.

And just as important is what the horses do for the children's self-confidence.

"It can be scary, it's the unknown," said Kelly Slonaker of Endeavor Therapeutic Horsemanship. "You're asking this big animal to trust you and you have to trust in them. That's how they work on all those skills and gives some confidence -- a sense of accomplishment and its incredible to watch."

Many of these children will need therapy for a long time so anything that makes it different and fun helps bring them out of their shell and keeps them engaged in their therapy.

And amazingly, the therapists tell CBS2's Gomez that their body muscle relaxation actually helps them with their speech as well.

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