Using Equine Modalities as a Holistic Approach to Physical and Occupational Therapy with Stephanie PT and Nicole OT 020

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Today’s Guest

Nicole Raftis OT and Stephanie Boyd PT owner

Nicole is an Occupational Therapists that graduated in 1995. She tells us how she always wanted to work in pediatrics. Her typical work week consists of private practice one day, clinic another day, and another day she works at the Pathway Ponies Program with Steph. For the last 12 years, she’s been focused on children and youth mental health with emotional regulation and anxiety issues.

In our interview, Nicole tells us that when she was at the children’s hospital, they had a therapy dog that would visit regularly. The OT department ran that program, and that was when she had her first taste of animal-assisted therapy and its power. Then she learned about Pathways Therapy. She started working there when Steph invited her to use equine-assisted therapy, and she thought it was a fantastic partnership. 

During the conversation, they tell us how with this therapy, kids feel like they are riding instead of doing therapy. With this therapy they can get a lot more done in half an hour than what they can get done in a whole week in the clinic. They also love the magic that happens when kids or adults challenge themselves to do something they perceive as dangerous; they believe it is spiritually valuable and builds self-esteem. 

They also tell us about all their struggles including economically, as it is an expensive therapy. They tell us that once you find what brings you joy, that positive energy fills you up positively, so you can be creative, find ways to earn money and make a living.

Find Nicole on Instagram or her website.

“One of my biggest passions is the idea of the right to risk which is the other thing that really made me pursue this as a treatment modality. Because a lot of our self-esteem is built in finding the boundaries of what we’re capable of.” 

Stephanie is a Physical Therapist that graduated in 1992. In our conversation, she tells us how the Pathways Ponies Group was an organic extension of her personal life because she has always been involved with horses. She also tells us about how she’s always been a Holistic care provider and how three years ago, she started a Master of Psychotherapy, which she finished this year. She thinks it is very complementary to her PT degree. 

Steph tells us how she volunteered in a Therapy Riding facility as a consultant PT and worked with the riding instructors to figure out how they would adapt the riding to kids with disabilities. That’s when she realized how much more could be done with the horses.

She also tells us how she thinks the program is better with Nicole. The two of them are passionate about this area of care and have a similar approach despite being a PT and an OT. For Steph, it’s been a joy having Nicole as a teammate and not doing it alone.

Find Stephanie on Instagram, facebook, or her Psychotherapy website.

Episode Highlights

Benefits of animal assisted activities in a rehab therapy settings

Pros and cons working for yourself and working for someone else

Providing a wholistic approach to rehab therapy by incorporating Psychotherapy

Therapeutic Childhood Development

Stephanie and Nicole’s Transition:


Stephanie Boyd – Registered Physiotherapist & Program Director As our Registered Physiotherapist, Stephanie is responsible for the development and progress of the individual physiotherapy treatment programs of all riders in our PT program. Steph has completed Level 1 and 2 of her American Hippotherapy Association and is a Bobath trained physiotherapist with almost 30 years of experience treating clients of all ages with neurological or complex care needs. Steph is also a rider who competes in Canada and the United States with the American Paint Horse Association and is a rodeo contestant with Rawhide Rodeo in Ontario.

Nicole Raftis – Registered Occupational Therapist. Nicole is responsible for the development and progress of the occupational therapy program. Nicole has worked with children and families for 25 years, supporting physical and mental health development in numerous settings. Nicole has received program safety training from Steph and has completed her Level 1 certification with the American Hippotherapy Association.

Pathways Ponies is our Occupational and Physiotherapy program that includes equine-assisted activities. The program encompasses a range of treatments that involve activities with horses and ponies to promote human physical and mental health. Pathways therapy has been running a Physiotherapy program including equine movement for 15 years. In 2020, Occupational Therapy with equine-assisted activities became available.

Equine-assisted activities are an integral part of the physio/occupational therapy treatment programs. The use of the horses for treatment is often a very enjoyable part of the therapy session but just as we use modalities such as hydrotherapy (pool programs), ultrasound, sensory or exercise programming, the use of horses to provide a dynamic platform for therapeutic exercise, and as a social-emotional tool, is part of an integrated therapy program, not a “stand alone” treatment.

Our therapists create client centered treatment plans for every client that registers for sessions in our Pathways Ponies program. The goals are based on the skills that the client needs to develop and meet the standards required for registered occupational and physiotherapists. We adjust our sessions to meet the needs of each client, but typically, 30 minutes of the session involve equine related activities that support the client’s therapy goals. The remaining 30 minutes of the hour-long sessions are also focused on the client’s therapy goals utilizing other modalities we have available at the barn (i.e. physical exercise opportunities, art activities for fine and visual motor skills, games for social and communication skills).

There is growing evidence for the physical and mental health benefits of equine-assisted therapy programs (See research identified by the American Hippotherapy Association). Our therapists have witnessed clients increased motivation to participate in therapy sessions and increased speed and intensity of goal attainment due to the novel environment, unique activities and relationships that come with the Pathways Ponies program. Our clients seem to be increasingly invested in connecting with their equine team, especially their horse, and challenging themselves to engage in the novel activities presented in the barn setting. We have been very excited to see many of our clients experiencing increased confidence, emotional regulation, improved strength, coordination, balance, social and communication skills, increased engagement and motivation, and a sense of meaningful participation on a team.

What caused you to make this alternative career shift?

Engagement, motivation and physical skills related to the interactions.

What is your desired transformation(s) from this alternative journey?

To maximize the therapeutic value clients get out of our therapy sessions. To help other therapists experience the power of animal-assisted therapy.

What has been your biggest struggle with this alternative career and life path?

Cost of the programming, managing herd health & managing the number of staffing needs to run the program safely.

What was at stake if you didn’t take the risk of pursuing this alternative career?

Not meeting our full potential for helping clients engage in holistic treatment.


University of Toronto

Queens University

Neruo-Developmental Treatment Association (NDTA)

Canada Equine Coach Krista Breen

Movie References:

American Hippotherapy Association

Adam Grant Rethinking

Brene Brown

Reaching Your Full Potential by Reinventing Yourself with Patricia Motus OTR/L, RYT 015

Pathways Therapy

Stephanie Boyd Linkedin

Nicole Raftis Linkedin


Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know

Brene Brown Books

Books for Child Development

The Whole Brain Child

Self Reg

Ross w. Greene Books

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