Diane Simon, MS ’93, is not your average speech-language pathologist. Her office is on a farm, and her two primary assistants are horses.
The owner of Top Form Horses Equestrian and Speech Therapy Center, in Hamburg, New Jersey, Simon provides equine-assisted speech therapy sessions and hippotherapy sessions to her clients.
During equine-assisted sessions, clients walk, brush, or feed the horses while receiving therapy. The mere presence of the horse provides extra motivation for those clients – children and adults of all ages – and they tend to progress quickly, she explains. During hippotherapy sessions, clients ride the horse while Simon provides therapy and assistants lead the horse in a rhythmic walk around an outdoor arena. The horse’s movement activates the rider’s vestibular system, achieving an optimum level of arousal and attention. Clients’ rapid progress with this treatment, she says, can be astounding.
“Vestibular stimulation is key to processing in the brain; it affects balance, visual-spatial skills, and auditory-language perception skills,” Simon says. “It’s all about creating the optimum conditions for learning. You can be in therapy for months, even years, and the progress seems so slow. This is a completely different experience: If you’re going to see results, you’re going to see them quickly.”
Simon also offers conventional therapy sessions in her on-the-farm office, which is somewhat unconventional due to its bucolic setting and rustic wooden décor.
“I obviously love it, but I think my clients do, too,” Simon says of her perch on the farm. “It’s a very calm, peaceful environment – less stressful than a busy clinic. The first thing I notice with autistic children, for example, is that their anxiety levels are typically very high. Once they’re calm, it’s easier for them to learn. And I think the parents benefit from the calmer setting, too. Communication disorders are very stressful for the entire family.”
Simon works with many students with autism who have high anxiety about new environments. Surprisingly, on their first visit to the farm, many of them just relax and walk calmly into her barn and office. “It’s amazing,” she says.
Simon started horseback riding at age 9 and has always loved horses. She spent eight years as an elementary school speech-language specialist in Upper Saddle River, NJ and then relocated to Georgia where she opened a private speech-therapy practice, eventually expanding to offer equine-assisted therapy. She returned to New Jersey, and launched Top Form, in 2016. She lives on the farm and maintains it herself.
Simon primarily treats special needs children from ages 2 and up – those with autism, sensory processing disorders, motor-based speech disorders, or cerebral palsy – although she does see some adults for cognitive therapy as well. “Though they aren’t usually interested in riding, they get the emotional benefit from coming to the farm and forgetting about their disability for a day. Petting the horses, being in a different place – I think that’s psychologically beneficial for clients.”
“Taking courses in language development at William Paterson, the professors’ stress was always to teach language in a natural environment, not in a fake setting. ‘Take it out there and use it in real life,’” Simon says. “I think my work really mimics that completely.”
To learn more, visit www.topformhorses.com.
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