Interview with Heather Ajzenman, OTD,OTR/L

Interview with
Heather Ajzenman OTD,OTR/LHHRF Scientific Advisory Council Member

June 3, 2015

Heather Ajzenman received her doctorate in occupational therapy from Washington University in St. Louis in December of 2012. She piloted a study on “The Effect of Hippotherapy on Motor Control, Adaptive Behaviors, and Participation in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders,” which was published in 2013 in The American Journal of Occupational Therapy. As part of her doctoral apprenticeship, she worked with a variety of American Hippotherapy Association faculty members learning different research, business, and treatment approaches, and developing a hippotherapy toolbox and practice model that she employs in her current practice.

She currently lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina working full time as an occupational therapist with children from birth to 21 years old in the community setting, including using hippotherapy as a treatment strategy. Heather incorporates a variety of other evidence-based interventions into her practice such as DIR/Floortime, NDT/motor learning principles, sensory processing intervention, self-care, and executive functioning approaches. She is an active dressage rider with experience riding at the FEI level, now focusing on starting young dressage horses. 

HHRF: What is your research background or interest area?

HA: My research focus was primarily in graduate school where I completed my doctorate at Washington University in St. Louis. As the primary investigator, I conducted a pilot study examining utilizing hippotherapy as an occupational therapy intervention for children with autism spectrum disorders (read about it). It was published in the American Journal of Occupational Therapy in 2013, which was used for the basis of Dr. Timothy Shurtleff’s HHRF grant. I continue to engage in research reviews in the academic setting, assisting and collaborating with professors and graduate students on research projects. My main role now though is working full time as an occupational therapist with children in the community setting. 

HHRF: How would you explain your connection to HHRF or its mission?

HA: Though engaging in research is not my main focus at the time, I continue to rely on the literature to implement evidence-based practices into my clinical work. It is so important that we continue to get the best evidence out there to support the work of the equine-assisted fields, whether as a therapist, educator, mental health provider, or riding instructor.

HHRF: What broad observations or trends have your observed from your time on Scientific Advisory - regarding applications, review process, types of research proposed, types of research funded, or anything else.

HA: When I first joined the scientific advisory council, a large majority of the applications were for adaptive riding and therapy-based interventions. For the past year or so, applications have had a heavy focus on mental health, especially for veterans. It is amazing to see the role we have and how we are beginning to explore best practice related to integrating equine-assisted activities and therapies (EAA/T) for these individuals.

HHRF: What is the most exciting EAA/T research happening today (within or outside of HHRF)? 

HA: There are a variety of solid research studies that support the benefits of EEA/T for children and adults with disabilities including studies on utilizing hippotherapy with children with autism and cerebral palsy. A recently published study, on “A Comparison of Equine-Assisted Intervention and Conventional Play-Based Early Intervention for Mother–Child Dyads with Insecure Attachment” by Beetz, et al. (read about it) highlights the importance of utilizing equine-assisted therapy (in this case the term interventions is used to include all early intervention specialists) for children under the age of 3 as an intervention approach for mother-child relationships. Two interesting aspects of this study were how the research compared EAT to a play-based intervention and explored EAT beyond Neuro-motor development. EAT is a wonderful treatment approach and makes a great impact to a large range of clients, however, it reminds therapists that there are a number of other treatment approaches to use in conjunction with hippotherapy for improving child/family outcomes.

HHRF: What are flaws you see in research projects that you do not recommend for funding?

HA: The biggest flaw is related to terminology, with researchers confusing, not defining, or switching terminology related to equine-assisted therapy - EAT (hippotherapy, mental health practices) and equine-assisted activities - EAA (adaptive riding/therapeutic riding, equine learning experiences). This issue goes beyond grant applications, as there is confusion throughout the industry regarding what is EAT and EAA. It is important to be clear what equine-assisted therapy or activity is used if we are to gain increased acceptance from the medical field and the community as a whole. As a result it is important for researchers to define if therapy (including mental health providers), recreational, or educational approaches are the focus of their study to increase the likelihood of funding.

HHRF: What do you hope to see in future research applications/projects or do you see any emerging trends? Any advice for future applicants?

HA: The recent mother-child dyad study (see above) that compared early intervention using the horse versus play-based approaches is a wonderful example for the direction of future studies. We need to start comparing various therapy approaches to EAT or various recreational activities to EAA to better understand when EAA/T is beneficial or not beneficial over various approaches and/or can be used in conjunction with other approaches. It is exciting that more research is beginning to focus on a combination of factors (e.g. socio-emotional well-being, motor control, child-family interactions, cognition) and how EAA/T can play a dynamic role in this development.

HHRF: What will research do for the EAA/T fields?

HA: Research is important as it provides individuals in the field with evidence-based approaches to apply in their settings as well as provide ideals for what best approaches or practice may look like. Research is key, as evidence encourages “support” from the community including families, future investors in research, medical providers, and policy makers.

HHRF: Why is Horses and Humans Research Foundation's work and mission important?

HA: HHRF provides an essential place to bring together a huge interdisciplinary team (the scientific advisory council) with a huge diversity of backgrounds. The foundation gives people the opportunity to do research in this industry where funding would otherwise not be available.

janet w.