Dr. Erin O’Mahony of Manes for Movement in Palos Verdes Merges Her Passion for Physical Therapy with Her Lifelong Love of Horses

Riding high.

  • Category
    Health, People
  • Written by
    Diane E. Barber
  • Photographed by
    Shane O’Donnell

After finishing a clinical rotation at The Shea Therapeutic Riding Center in San Juan Capistrano to complete her doctorate, Dr. Erin O’Mahony accepted a pediatric physical therapy job in Torrance and relocated to the South Bay—a move that became a significant stepping stone in her career path. While working at her new job, the Oregon native commuted to Orange County two days per week to continue her specialized horse-assisted therapy work (hippotherapy). She soon realized that several people from the South Bay were also making the trek south to access the medical services. 

“It made no sense for all of us to drive so far, especially the patients. I had just moved my horses to Peter Weber Equestrian Center in Rolling Hills Estates, so I decided to ask the managers, Gil Houle and his wife, Doreen, about the prospect of bringing hippotherapy to the community,” she shares. “They were very open and supportive. Gil and their daughter, Chantal, generously offered the family’s private barn for me to get started.”

Key to making the Manes for Movement vision a reality beyond securing the location was the addition of qualified staff members. Palos Verdes resident and professional horsewoman Niki MacLeod and Dr. O’Mahony previously met at a training weekend for adaptive riding instructors. “I jokingly said to Niki, ‘Let me know when you are ready to start a facility with me.’ Not long after that, we did!”

“The first time, he cried until the horse moved. Then he instantly stopped crying. He sings and laughs when he is on a horse.”

Niki is currently the program director and certified therapeutic riding instructor. Dr. Elizabeth Pauly, an occupational therapist, joined the team in 2021.

The nonprofit organization offers two primary programs for children and adults with disabilities and special needs: hippotherapy and adaptive riding. Hippotherapy (for patients 18 months old through adulthood) is the use of the horse as a treatment tool by a licensed physical therapist, occupational therapist or speech therapist to address the functional goals of medical patients. Adaptive riding is a recreational horseback riding program that begins at age 5 and can be a lifelong activity.

“Hippotherapy is a powerful tool to help improve skills such as walking, talking or other daily living activities,” says Dr. O’Mahony. “While I focus on physical therapy with big body movements like walking, Liz concentrates on fine motor skills, such as handwriting, eating and using scissors. On the recreational horseback-riding side, Niki uses different teaching tools including visual markers and adaptive equipment, such as reins that are easier to hold, so students can succeed in reaching their riding goals.”

Having fun is paramount in both programs and fosters participation. During some therapy sessions, toy horses are hidden around the arena for children to work on visually scanning their environment while moving. It also encourages them to reach outside their base of support to retrieve the toys, which further challenges their balance, core strength and postural control while on the horse.

With the fun and enjoyment has come great progress and many notable milestones. Some children have taken their first steps to their parents at the barn, and some have uttered or signed their first words there.

“Cayden has been coming to Manes for Movement since the very beginning,” says Kara Lee, whose 8-year-old son is a client with cerebral palsy. “The first time, he cried until the horse moved. Then he instantly stopped crying. He is more motivated outdoors with a live animal than in traditional indoor therapy. He sings and laughs when he is on a horse. We love the program!”

Dr. O’Mahony has her sights set on expansion to serve more people. “We are the only facility within 40 miles of the South Bay that offers both hippotherapy and adaptive riding under the same roof. We started with two therapy horses and two clients. Now we have five horses (Lizzie, Mali, Chance, Dolly and Rufus) and provide over 40 therapy sessions per week. We are grateful for the community support and are looking forward to future growth.”

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