You have all heard it, Horses are Great For individuals with autism. Is it true?

Horseback riding
Is horseback riding helpful for children with autism?

Yes and no.  I have been partnering with the horse through adaptive riding to work with kids with autism for over 10 years.  So I am no expert, because I think it is impossible to be an expert at something that is never the same.  But I have worked with many different individuals on the autism spectrum.

The No

Horseback riding or equine assisted activities are not good for kids who absolutely have no desire to be around a horse.  I once worked with a beautiful girl who absolutely hated horses.  She would bite, kick, spit, scream any time she was put on a horse.  This went on for weeks.  The parents were really set on having her ride – she was having none of it.  She was in my class for several months and then I moved on to a different center.   I lost touch with that family for a few years and one day, they appeared at a different center where I was working.  The girl was bigger now and let me tell you, she still was having the exact same response to riding.  In this situation, I don’t believe being around horses was helpful for this young lady.

The Yes

However, I believe that she was an exception.  The majority of kids I work with who are on the Autism Spectrum are absolutely smitten with horses.  From the first meeting, they want to touch, smell, brush, and hug the horse.  They like to be on the ground with the horse, they like to lead the horse and most do enjoy riding too!  For some reason, the horses feel the same way about the children.  I think that people on the autism spectrum have an extra sense about how to interact with animals that us “typical” folk do not have. 

Improved Social Skills

Horses are beings that require a level of communication.  Horses are very perceptive and do not judge you.  They take you for who you are right at the time you are with them.  They do not require verbal communication or eye contact.  This makes it easier for my students to interact with them.  There is an unseen body language that the student shares with the horse and the horse reacts. They are making a new friend.  This is the start of better communication with people.

Enriched learning opportunities

Yes, your child is going to be more motivated to follow directions while they are on a horse.  It just is so much more interesting and exciting.  They will learn things while on a horse that they have been resistant to in a clinical setting.  

Improved Balance

If your child’s diagnosis includes any physical disability, horses are super helpful for that.  Riding on a horse improves your balance, gait, muscle tone, core strength and spatial awareness.  Sometimes we do fun things like riding backwards, playing catch with a ball while riding, reaching for objects, playing polo- all require and improve physicality.

Decreased Anxiety

This works for anyone getting around horses.  The rest of the world gets left behind and it is just you and your horse.  It is a lovely break from anyone’s day. 

Confidence Builder

Getting a 1000 pound animal to listen to you and do what you ask – I would say that could boost your confidence.  Sometimes horseback riding is the best sport your child can get involved in.  It is a lifetime love and not just a hobby for a season.  The unusual thing about making horses your sport is that horses are unpredictable.  They will try your patience, they will get you out of your comfort zone.  Horses will make you want to scream and have a tantrum, but you can’t because you know that only makes the situation worse. What is amazing is that kids with autism will understand this.

What kind of horse therapy is best?

This is a story about Adaptive Riding or Therapeutic Riding.  This is where your child is actually taught horsemanship skills.  Much of that is therapeutic by chance, but the focus is teaching your child how to work with and ride horses. It is not an official therapy.

Here are some other types of Equine Assisted Therapies:

Hippotherapy is a generic term for a variety of activities including; physical, occupational or speech therapy that uses the horse as a modality.  These practitioners are physical therapists, occupational therapists or speech language pathologists that have received a certification through American Hippotherapy Association to incorporate horses into their therapy.

Equine Assisted Therapy – a counselor or psychologists using the horse interaction as part of a therapy session.  These are licensed counselors and medical professionals.

Equine Assisted Activities – a generic term for a variety of activities that people can do with horses that does not involve riding.  Like equine assisted coaching or learning.