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Brynlee feeding a horse.
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Eddie, the horse, plods around the ring, humans walking on both sides, 11-year-old Kye Phelps astride, and Katherine, his mother, watching and hoping. Kye has autism and for six months he has been coming twice weekly for hippotherapy sessions at Butterfly Dreams Equine Farm in Watkinsville.  

“I didn’t know what it was when his therapist mentioned it,” says Phelps. “And I didn’t know how he would react but from the very first day, he loved it.”  

The farm’s owner, Cat Thompson, who also has a speech and occupational therapy office practice, explains that hippotherapy is a medical model that incorporates the unique movements of a horse with physical, occupational and speech therapy. The word derives from ancient Greek – “Hippos” means horse and “therapy” means treatment. A doctor’s prescription is required, and treatment is generally covered by insurance. 

Thompson, a lifelong equestrian who has adopted and fostered seven developmentally disabled children, started Butterfly Dreams as a nonprofit in 2005 after she saw the powerful way horses impacted her severely disabled foster daughter who gained the strength to walk and the ability to communicate through hippotherapy.  

Today, Thompson’s clients include or have included children and adults with autism, Down syndrome, traumatic brain injury, fetal alcohol syndrome, cerebral palsy, and various other developmental delays as well as older adults with conditions such as Parkinson’s.  

Hippotherapy has been studied extensively since the 1960s when it became an adjunct to physical therapy in Germany, Switzerland and Austria. It was found to increase communication skills, empathy, and patience as well as to create statistically significant changes in posture, strength, flexibility, and muscle symmetry. 

The North American Riding for the Handicapped Association was launched in 1969. By 1987, a standardized curriculum was developed and by 1999, a certification board was established. Thompson and her instructors are certified through the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH).    

The horses are “bomb-proof” 

Eddie, Jonathan, Sheik and Peanut Butter are among the 12 horses living at the farm. Thompson says most are rescues and around 20 years old – “They’ve gained patience and wisdom.” 

Any type of breed or horse is eligible, but they must have a calm disposition and a steady, rhythmic pace. Thompson describes the selection of horses as “quite a process.” They undergo a 30-day trial because they will encounter children who might pull on their manes, get overly excited, or scream when a helmet goes on. “The horses have to be bomb-proof.” 

They are trained to tolerate the constraints of a handler, a side walker and the therapist. The horses are given breaks regularly, pastured daily, and fed with their health and nutrition in mind.  

Horses are also matched to the rider’s ability to steer and control it while maintaining balance without a saddle. Special needs riders need to feel the movement of the horse directly, so they ride bareback with a light padding to protect the horse’s spine and skin.  

“Every child has different needs,” Thompson explains. “Some need more movement, so we’ll put the child on a big horse with a big, rhythmic stride. A spastic child will need a slow ride, not so much movement. A Down syndrome child would be bored by a slow ride.”  

Brynlee Miller, 3, is never bored on a horse. Born with Down Syndrome, Brynlee and her mother Kim discovered her attraction to horses at a special needs rodeo where they learned about Butterfly Dreams and hippotherapy. Although she hasn’t been tested yet, she may also have apraxia, a neurological disorder that affects the ability to produce speech. The brain knows what it wants to say but cannot properly plan and sequence the required speech sound movements.  

“We try to give her every opportunity we can come up with,” says Miller. “In just a month, she’s become more verbal and added words to her ’word bank.’ Being outdoors has transformed her life – it’s opened up everything for her.”  

Katherine Phelps says in the six months her son Kye has been going to hippotherapy, he has become more independent and more confident.  

“His physical strength has improved – he doesn’t slouch; it’s strengthening his core,” she explains. Autistic children often have poor muscle tone and limited motor control and coordination. In addition, they often struggle with social skills and sensory issues.  

Hippotherapy helps them learn to relate to the horse, and through the horse, with the team, with other people. They are taught to talk to the horse about what they want him to do, to use gentle rubs; not to hit or be aggressive. They find the consequences of inappropriate behavior are immediate – the horse stops.  


Volunteers are integral to Butterfly Dreams’ operation as one person must lead the horse with two side escorts to ensure the safety of the rider while the therapist provides therapeutic lessons. Currently, the farm has about 30 volunteers but needs about 40. Sessions are Monday through Friday, from 30 minutes to one hour in an arena or on a short, wooded path, dotted with stations that provide physical and mental stimulation.  

Cindy Lavallee, recently retired to the area, has been volunteering for about 18 months. She says it requires no special skills but “you do have to be an ‘animal person.’ It’s gratifying to witness the joy and accomplishment derived from these sessions by kids of all ages. I see it to be a truly remarkable thing.”  

“As volunteers, we laugh with the kids, sing with them, applaud them when they achieve a goal and comfort them if they are nervous, which is rare.  We show them how to groom their ‘friends,’ give them treats, and how to respect these remarkable animals.” 

 Lee Robinson, 66, retired in early 2023 from the demanding role of facilities director at Prince Avenue Christian School. By February, he decided he needed something more to do and saw a posting for volunteers on Facebook.  

“It’s been a good fit,” he says. “I wanted to serve and give back. I’m glad to be able to give the parents a break from the caregiving – they are so appreciative.” 

Bob Chiu has been bringing his daughter Sandy, 41, who has cerebral palsy and is wheelchair-bound, to the farm for the past year. She’s enrolled in the therapeutic riding program, which is a sports and recreational model that’s helpful for mental health issues such as depression or an eating disorder, and for physical disabilities that don’t qualify for hippotherapy.  

“It helps her core muscles,” Chiu explains. “She’s very spastic so it helps to elongate her muscles, helps her balance, and strengthens her legs, which gives her confidence.”  

Thompson schedules volunteer orientations every other weekend for those who think they might be interested in this unusual activity. These sessions last about 90 minutes.  

“Even if you haven’t been around horses but enjoy being outdoors and around animals, it’s just such a pleasurable way to go out and help the community,” Thompson says. “So many of our volunteers who were not horse-familiar, find they really enjoy interacting with the horses. And until you’ve been around these kids, you don’t realize how joyful and amazing they are. They have such a zest for life, a joy for life.” 

Katherine Phelps notes that her son gets so much fulfillment from it, but she worries. “They can’t ride if they don’t have volunteers. That would be heartbreaking.”  

For questions about volunteering, donating to horse upkeep, or any other questions, contact

Volunteering offers significant health benefits, especially for older adults.  

  1. Volunteers report better physical health than non-volunteers; people who volunteer have lower mortality rates than those who do not.  
  1. Volunteering leads to lower rates of depression and anxiety, especially for people 65 and older. By spending time in service to others, volunteers report a sense of meaning and appreciation.  
  1. Volunteering provides a sense of purpose and accomplishment.  
  1. Volunteering teaches valuable skills and draws on them. Whether learning “on the job” or bringing existing skills and mentoring, keeps both mind and social skills active.  
  1. Volunteering nurtures new and existing relationships. Participating in shared activities expands your social network and allows you to practice social skills with others. Regular connection helps people make and keep friendships, which are so important to healthy aging.

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