Horse riding has proven to be an effective and beneficial treatment for autism through hippotherapy and equine therapy.
Equine therapy tranquilizes riders with autism and makes them concentrate while receiving basic training and riding skills. They are taught how to care for their ponies while undergoing training classes simultaneously which gives them a sense of responsibility, independence, and confidence to speak and move around accurately.
A recent study in an ASD research journal discovered that there was a significant improvement in autistic children treated with therapeutic horseback riding within 10 weeks of application (2).
How Useful Is Equine Therapy?
It is the normal belief that due to the regular routines which horses are accustomed to, children and youth diagnosed with autism find it quite easy to follow the horse’s behavioral patterns because of the repetitive manner of approach to life that these patients are also used to. Horses love to follow regular routines such as the same roads, same path, same stable, and same activities just like autistic kids.
Equine therapy involves among other approaches, a non-verbal relationship between the horse and the patient which gives the child a strong ability to control his partner persuasively.
The rhythmic movement of the horse also has a way of relaxing the muscles and the brain thereby creating a psychological and social development in the emotional interaction with the dressage.
The research about whether it is the therapeutic approach or just the normal horse riding that has the healing power is still being understudied by professionals in equine therapy.
Hippotherapy is a medical intervention that involves using horses in the treatment of neurodevelopmental and speech disorders in patients such as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Hippos is a horse in Greek while hippotherapy means the therapeutic use of horses (1).
Parents of autistic children may seek such medical attention if the conventional education system or regular clinic schedules have become too boring and frustrating for the child.
This treatment method will be effective for kids that love horses and have been diagnosed with a physical, social, and communication disorder that is known to occur in patients with autism.
Therapeutic riding stimulates the child’s sensory organs thereby making him/her prepare his/her body for tasking activities like speech production, well-coordinated motor skills, and improved posture.
“There is something important about riding a horse”, says Gabriels, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado School of Medicine (3). Her research about therapeutic horse riding for autistic youth discovered that those who rode horses displayed progress in hyperactivity, irritability, and communication skills in contrast to those who did not ride.
In this situation, children were randomly assigned into two groups of those who will have interaction with live horses and those who will work with stuffed ponies in a farmhouse. Although the lessons administered with the stuffed pony were similar to that of the riders with equal attention from instructors.
At the end of the study, the riders performed better than the non-riders, this is documented proof that horse riding is beneficial in treating autism.
Advantages Of Horse Riding Therapy
Reduces Hyperactivity And Irritability
The idea of horse riding being a physical activity helps to engage the autistic youth thereby allowing him to be completely attentive while on his dressage. Hypersensitivity is one of the symptoms of autism which is similar to ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) diagnosis.
This therapy calms and pacifies the patient through the rhythmic and steady movements of the horse. Horses are known to have subtle temperaments that can soothe a child with any form of developmental disorder like autism or ADHD through the physical and emotional connection between the child and the animal. The inability to express one’s feelings can be frustrating and may result in irritability especially in the case of someone suffering from a mental disorder.
Autistic children have difficulties comprehending tasks outside their regular daily activities and horses can bridge the gap in this situation due to their similar manners of approach to a daily routine which brings about a beneficial relationship between the two parties.
Encourages A Sense Of Belonging
Toddlers and teenagers suffering from autism have great difficulty connecting with their parents and loved ones due to their social disability. When they begin horse riding therapy, they will surely interact non-verbally with their horse by cuddling, hugging, and patting it.
This relationship with the pony improves gradually as their lessons progress from stage to stage thereby encouraging them to transfer this emotional bond towards their human friends. They begin to make eye contact and show love with a sense of belonging to other people in their lives.
The communication skills of children under hippotherapy advances with the cognitive concepts incorporated by the therapist to enhance the healing process. The patient ordinarily cannot understand nor comprehend any instruction directed towards him/her but with equine training, he/she will learn from giving the horse direction and signs while riding.
He will be guided by his tutor with exciting activities that will create a fun-filled atmosphere for learning such as playing catch and fetch with the horse and riding across obstacles or in circles. It has been discovered that children who ordinarily cannot speak at all due to autism begin to talk when told to call the horse’s name or give directions to the animal.
Holding the reins and being straddled on a horse reduces spasticity in the upper and lower limbs. This is aided by the body contact the rider has with the horse’s warmth. Sitting astride the dressage stretches the thigh adductor muscles as well as pre-mounting exercises and introducing the rider gradually from a narrower specie to a much broader one. Exhaustion created from riding the horse also decreases the patient’s disability thereby enhancing motion in the entire body.
Climbing, descending, grooming, and physical tasks during riding lessons also increase the range of motion with abnormal movements becoming eliminated. In trying to regain balance, the rider’s muscles tighten and expand as the horse throws him off-balance which an ordinary physical therapy cannot resolve.
As the horse starts, stops, changes speed, and direction there is an improvement in the ability to move in a well-coordinated manner.
The rider’s ability to engage and get used to activities usually performed by normal people will boost his/her self confidence. Seeing that he/she can easily control an animal that is stronger and bigger than him/her is enough to improve their self-esteem and general interest plus a willingness to learn.
They communicate and begin to speak about their experiences in horse riding with their instructors and loved ones. They feel loved and the frustration that comes with incapability of acting like other people without any disorder melts away with repetitive and interesting lessons on the dressage.
Patience, control of emotions, and self-discipline are generated from the positive thoughts they develop due to their level of development and improvement in new skills or milestones.
Building and encouraging a cordial relationship among a group of riders is a great benefit of therapeutic riding. Every autistic child or youth will show an interest in maintaining a perfect connection with their colleagues during the program.
They will also bond well with their horses which further makes them willing to continue their lessons to progress unbelievably from anti-social beings to sociable members of a common intellectual society.
Horse shows organized to help riders reach a mutual goal in eliminating autism spectrum symptoms also increases their social development where they can interact with one another and achieve a deep sense of love and affection in the long term.
Accuracy In Motor Skills
Counting numbers and ability to identify shapes, colors, and alphabets can be quite difficult for autistic kids and this is an area of intellectual capacity that needs to be worked upon. Instructors can incorporate these lessons into their curriculum by using available objects and body parts to achieve this milestone.
Counting the horse’s legs, ears, footsteps, and colorful objects could solve such a problem including the use of signs and alphabets drawn on flashcards and placed at strategic positions where the rider can easily see them during riding lessons.
Distinguishing between right and left as well as eye-hand coordination which can help in writing all bring about properly coordinated motor skills.
Make it a mandatory step to take by ensuring you give your child the best therapy to assist him/her in gaining the cognitive skills that will help him develop his mental alertness and make him useful to himself and the entire planet in the future.
Hippotherapy is not only for autistic patients, teens and adults suffering from cerebral palsy, down syndrome, developmental and intellectual disabilities can also benefit from this therapeutic approach.