Admittedly, Nathalie Miller, MSOT ‘20
, was “that horse kid.” From the age of 10, she was hanging around in the barn mucking stalls and cleaning water troughs just so she could get extra time with the horses and earn more riding time.
And, that love of horses has now turned into a career.
During her undergraduate studies at West Chester University in West Chester, Pennsylvania, Miller started volunteering at Thorncroft Equestrian Center — one of the premier equestrian centers in the United States in Malvern, Pennsylvania — where she was introduced to hippotherapy. And no, hippotherapy doesn’t have anything to do with hippos. Hippotherapy is a physical, occupational and speech therapy approach that utilizes the natural gait and movement of a horse to provide motor and sensory input. It is based on the improvement of neurologic functions, and sensory processes, and used for patients with physical and mental disorders.
“When I started working at Thorncroft (which is one of the field work locations Salus University sends its Occupational Therapy
students), I learned I really loved working with people with disabilities,” said Miller. “I learned that I loved sharing my passion for horses with other people and showing them the value of being around horses. Horses can be used to help people in so many different ways.”
Originally from Audubon, Pennsylvania, in the northwest suburbs of Philadelphia, Miller graduated from West Chester with a degree in psychology. She initially started at another graduate school, but didn’t have the experience she was seeking. She was admitted into Salus at the last minute and it ended up being a perfect fit. “At Salus, I felt I had the support I needed. The professors were really encouraging and they helped me cultivate my success as a student in beginning a new master’s program,” she said.
That was doubly important because of the continued challenges that Miller faced. While working toward her master’s in Occupational Therapy, not only did the pandemic hit, but Miller’s mother and boyfriend both passed way. “While I was dealing with the most difficult couple of years of my life, I was so grateful to have been at Salus. I had such a great experience of support. The professors care about each student as an individual and provide support to help each student succeed to reach goals that are important to them,” said Miller. “I felt very motivated to keep going despite all the devastating events that were happening in my life at that time. Salus played a big part in my ability to stay motivated and driven.”
Miller now works at the MedStar National Rehabilitation Hospital in Washington, D.C., where she handles outpatient services for those who have suffered strokes and brain injuries. Trained to treat patients with concussions, she also works in vision therapy and does part-time hippotherapy, mainly in pediatrics, at Great and Small Ride, a nonprofit therapeutic riding program in Montgomery County, Maryland.
According to Miller, the pelvic movement of the horse and the pelvic movement of the person are perpendicular to each other, so the person’s pelvic movement mimics the movement of walking. “The horse’s movement offers a rhythmic pattern that provides sensory and motor input to the participant,” she said. “This input is utilized to provide passive input to stretch the lower extremities, improve trunk control, integrate sensory systems, improve bi-lateral integration, improve balance, promote vocalization and so much more.”
This past year, Miller and her mentor, hippotherapy specialist Katelyn Roe, conducted a six-hour lecture and hands-on course for both OT and physical therapy (PT) therapeutic instructors called “Using Horses to Help People with Brain Injuries.” Miller also became a certified brain injury specialist in 2022 through the Brain Injury Association of America (BIAA).
She hopes to someday have her own outpatient clinic and hippotherapy practice. “I always dreamed of having a career with horses. I loved teaching therapeutic riding but, I realized it wasn’t sustainable income-wise,” said Miller. “When I heard about hippotherapy, I was super excited. I could actually progress my career and still use horses to help people. That’s pretty cool.”