PT Student Provides Hope for Local Families through Therapeutic Riding
Published June 15, 2022
By Darlene Muguiro
UTEP College of Health Sciences
Physical therapy student Liliana De Castro began her academic career believing she would pursue a career as a veterinarian. The former equestrian athlete began showing competitively at the age of 10. In high school, her plan was to ride for a university equestrian team while pursuing her degree. She applied to Oklahoma State University, ranked among the top in the nation for equestrian programs, and was accepted.
In De Castro’s senior year of high school, the NCAA decided to eliminate equestrian teams, and as a result, Oklahoma State was not able to assure her of her athletic scholarship. Challenged by the high out-of-state tuition rate, De Castro made the difficult decision to stay in the El Paso area.
While De Castro contemplated her next steps, her father began looking for options that would allow her to continue to work with horses, and ultimately suggested going to a national conference on therapeutic horsemanship hosted by PATH (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship) International.
“He was looking for options for me to continue to pursue a passion with horses, but I was so depressed about my athletic career not working out, that I was not interested initially,” De Castro explained. “The funny thing is, my parents didn’t grow up around horses or show interest in them before me, but I was born a horse girl.”
Her family’s persistence paid off, and she attended the PATH conference. In 2016, De Castro became a certified therapeutic riding instructor (CTRI), a credential for individuals in the equine-assisted services profession who provide riding instruction of therapeutic value to people with disabilities (PATH Intl.). She also changed her undergraduate degree from animal science at New Mexico State University to Kinesiology, with a minor in Speech-Language Pathology, at UTEP. Shortly thereafter, De Castro and her family established Hooves of Hope, a nonprofit serving children with special needs and their families. With four horses and a crew of volunteers from the UTEP Occupational and Physical Therapy Programs, the agency began reaching out to the local community through their Facebook platform, and began serving between five and 10 clients once per week on Saturdays.
“The children loved it; it was what they would look forward to on the weekend, and it was very rewarding to me,” De Castro said. “We had one little boy with autism who was very scared; he wouldn’t approach the horse. But after doing some work on the ground, he was able to ride, to the point that he refused to hop off! His communication evolved tremendously over the sessions.”
In watching the PT students with the clients, De Castro realized that she could do more than what she was doing as a CTRI, and she decided to pursue a career in physical therapy (PT).
In May 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, De Castro graduated with her undergraduate degree and began the UTEP Doctor of Physical Therapy Program one week later. Due to pandemic restrictions, followed by an intense class schedule and other PT program requirements, she had to temporarily halt the agency’s services. De Castro plans to reopen after she graduates with her degree in May 2023. At that point, the nonprofit will evolve into a small business, with additional horses and student clinicians. De Castro plans to become certified as a hippo therapist, an area of specialty that aims to provide “treatment utilizing evidence-based practice and clinical reasoning to use purposeful movements of the horse to influence and engage sensory, neuromotor and cognitive systems, thereby promoting functional outcomes in individuals with mental and physical disabilities,” (American Hippotherapy Association). She says her PT training will allow her to outline objective measurements that she can use to later identify therapeutic outcomes.
In the future, De Castro plans to expand her relationship with the College of Health Sciences, bringing students from different fields such as rehabilitation sciences to Hooves of Hope and serving as a clinical instructor.
“I would like the center to become a resource for UTEP and student learning and growth,” she said. “I would be happy to become a clinical instructor for students here in El Paso, teach them about hippotherapy and have them shadow me.”
For more information about Hooves of Hope, visit their Facebook page @Hooves of Hope El Paso.