Ride 'em Cowboy! Mechanical pony provides therapeutic option for children

NORWALK Say "mechanical pony,' and what comes to mind are those coin-operated children&r
Cory Frolik
May 24, 2010

 

NORWALK

Say “mechanical pony,” and what comes to mind are those coin-operated children’s rides outside grocery stores.

Peaches is not that type of pony.

Peaches does not accept quarters and is no toy. Instead, Peaches is a serious therapy tool that will help Fisher-Titus Medical Center staff develop better motor skills in young children while improving the children’s strength, balance and flexibility.

It must also be said that Peaches is awfully cute.

Within moments of laying eyes on the hand-crafted pony, Nicole Campbell, 2, was petting its snout and stroking its synthetic hair.

Nicole’s grin widened to a huge smile when she was placed on Peaches’ back and began rocking back and forth. Her mother, Linda Weilnau, could tell this was the beginning of a long relationship.

Nicole didn’t know it, but she was receiving treatment while riding Peaches.

“It strengthens their core — their stomach, their back, their abdomen. You have to have a strong core to be able to really do most of the activities of daily living: To be able to walk well, to be able to balance, to be able to write, even,” said Joyce Hill, Fisher-Titus’ director of rehabilitation.

Nicole has a slight case of cerebral palsy. For a long time, she didn’t use her left hand at all. But thanks to working with pediatric therapy staff, her left hand gets almost as much use as her right.

“It’s an amazing difference. ... There was a time when she couldn’t have even sat up (on the pony),” Weilnau said.

The hope is Peaches will help children like Nicole progress developmentally.

Like the other items at Fisher-Titus’ pediatric therapy department — the swings, the zip line and ball pit — Peaches was purchased for its therapeutic benefits.

Peaches will help many of the department’s clientele, who include children with autism, muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy or other neurological issues.

The pony was trotted out Tuesday during the pediatric therapy department’s annual Christmas party. The $2,000 therapy pony was purchased using money raised earlier this year by plastic surgeon Teresa Ghazoul.

The investment was an instant hit with the children.

Hill said the rehabilitation department discovered Equiponies by accident.

Equiponies is the name for the devices designed for children. The adult-sized devices — used by professional jockeys and Tobey Maguire for the filming of “Seabiscuit” — are called Equicizers. They are all made by one man.

“About a year ago, we were looking for a different means of therapy — a different way to treat children — and that’s when we learned about the Equicizer. Then we learned the Equicizer is made right here in Norwalk by Frankie Lovato,” Hill said.

Frank Lovato Jr. moved to Norwalk about two years ago after a 25-year career as a jockey, mainly in New York.

He built his first spring-loaded training device 20 years ago to help with his rehabilitation after he was seriously injured. It occurred to him there could be a serious market for his invention.

He retired from horse racing with the intent of going into business selling his hand-crafted mechanical horses. He owns and operates the Wooden Horse Corp.

He estimates he’s built about 800 Equicizers and Equiponies. The devices received national attention when they were used to film much of the movie “Seabiscuit.”

Eighteen of the last 20 winners of the Kentucky Derby have an Equicizer in their home, Lovato said.

Riding Equiponies helps children build and strengthen crucial muscles. But the devices are attractive to hospitals and pediatric departments for another reason.

Children can connect with Equiponies in ways they cannot with most other training equipment. A treadmill, after all, has no personality, Lovato said.