Therapeutic Horseback Riding As Autism Treatment

Mar 11, 2008 26 Comments by

Autistic boy interacts with a horse

Many of the students who ride at Pegasus Farm, a therapeutic horseback riding facility in northeast Ohio, are autistic. They are also some of our most challenging students. Actually, the handful of students I work with on a regular basis when I’m volunteering are autistic. Because of the nature of their disability, I think they can significantly benefit from time spent with horses.

If you are a parent of a child with autism, the information here will give you an overview of why horseback riding is great therapy. If you are a therapeutic riding volunteer, or considering becoming one, the information below will help you better understand students with autism and how to work with them.

Symptoms of Autism
Autism is a complex developmental disability that typically begins to show itself in a child’s first three years. This neurological disorder inhibits the development of social interaction and communication skills.

Autism symptoms vary highly from person to person, but usually include a combination of the following traits:

  • Insistence on sameness; resistance to change
  • Difficulty in expressing needs, using gestures or pointing instead of words
  • Repeating words or phrases in place of normal, responsive language
  • Laughing (and/or crying) for no apparent reason showing distress for reasons not apparent to others
  • Preference to being alone; aloof manner
  • Tantrums
  • Difficulty in mixing with others
  • Not wanting to cuddle or be cuddled
  • Little or no eye contact
  • Unresponsive to normal teaching methods
  • Sustained odd play
  • Spinning objects
  • Obsessive attachment to objects
  • Apparent over-sensitivity or under-sensitivity to pain
  • No real fears of danger
  • Noticeable physical over-activity or extreme under-activity
  • Uneven gross/fine motor skills
  • Non responsive to verbal cues; acts as if deaf, although hearing tests in normal range.

High-functioning autism generally refers to individuals with clear autistic traits who also demonstrate strong verbal, social, academic, and life skills. Low-functioning autism generally refers to individuals who show autism symptoms including little to no verbal, social, or academic skills.

While autism is not curable, it is treatable. With careful treatment on the autistic person’s terms, symptoms can lessen over time.

Using Horses For Autism Treatment
Riding horses addresses several key symptoms affiliated with autism:

  • communication and social skills
  • lowered sensory skills
  • motor skills
  • response to verbal cues and external stimuli.

Riding horses is much more than just a physical experience. While the movement of the horse is great for improving circulation, muscle control, and coordination, there is also a very profound bond that riders–healthy and disabled–develop with their mounts. Horses are companion animals. They look to their riders for direction and love. They are attuned to the smallest movement, attitude, and emotion; a rider cannot hide anything from a horse. Horses can tell if you are angry, nervous, happy, excited, tense, or relaxed and they respond accordingly. They aren’t demanding. They want to understand you and for you to understand them. Because of the love and trust they give, their fine-tuned responses, and desire to please, they are extremely effective in creating a bond with autistic riders that encourages communication and interaction.

Autistic riders learn to communicate verbally and physically with their horse, and they can see the immediate result of their communication when the horse reacts. They learn to focus on something outside themselves, an important step for austistic people. They also learn to communicate and interact with other people as they work with instructors and volunteers who are leading the horse or walking beside them. They learn to respond to verbal cues from the instructor as they complete specific tasks. Plus, riding horses is good exercise and a whole lot of fun.

Most importantly, kids and adults with autism learn to connect with horses, building a trusting relationship that is fun, rewarding, and life-changing.

Hippotherapy vs. Therapeutic Riding Programs
Hippotherapy and therapeutic riding differ primarily in practice and cost.

Hippotherapy is performed by a licensed physical or occupational therapist and has very specific physical tasks and goals. It is therapy using the horse as a living tool. It is very expensive (can run $150-200 per session), like any therapy, and is sometimes covered by medical insurance.

Therapeutic riding, also known as equine-assisted activites, on the other hand is more like riding lessons for physically and mentally disabled as well as kids and adults with behavioral or emotional issues. Cost is significantly less (generally $15-30 per session), and most centers make it available through sponsorship if families can’t afford to pay. Equine-assisted activities are taught by riding instructors with the help of volunteers who lead the horses and sidewalk next to the riders to ensure their safety. Therapeutic riding students learn to ride horses using verbal and physical cues like any other rider. Lessons are often taught in groups, which helps students to make friends and build confidence.

The North American Riding For the Handicapped Association is the country’s governing body for therapeutic riding. It provides accreditation for facilities and certification for instructors. Be sure to consult their list of accredited facilities and instructors before signing up for lessons.

Success Stories
In my time volunteering at Pegasus Farm, I’ve worked with several autistic students with varying symptoms and degrees of verbal communication and understanding.

T has been riding at Pegasus for nearly 25 years. She has decent verbal skills–when she chooses to use them. In working with her, I’ve seen her throw tantrums by violently throwing down the reins, displaying an aloof manner, avoiding eye contact, and showing no response to instruction. Over the last several months, T has thrown fewer and fewer tantrums, she looks at me more when I’m leading her horse and asking her to communicate with her horse, she smiles more, she answers my questions more frequently, and she responds to my instructions more often. We often rotate volunteers, but I’ve worked with T consistently for a few months now and I think that consistency is helping her to respond more and come out of her shell.

A is a low-functioning autism student. She doesn’t speak other than to occassionally repeat a word or phrase I’ve said. She sings to herself, and constantly shakes her head from side to side. She infrequently makes eye contact. I worked with her pretty consistently for several months. In that time, she learned to use the verbal cues “walk on” and “whoa” to ask her horse to go and stop. She only uses these words when echoing what I’ve said. I tell A “tell him walk on” and she parrots right back “tell him walk on.” But, after getting her to respond consistently, it became apparent that she was learning what those words actually meant. We would ask her horse to “whoa,” and immediately and without any prompting she would say “tell him walk on.” She had learned to associate the words with the response of the horse. A is very very happy when she’s on a horse and constantly smiles.

In working with both T and A, I’ve learned that I need to be extra-patient, very consistent, and relatively firm. They needed to learn to respect me before they’d look at or listen to me. I have to be creative. What works one week isn’t always effective the next. Most importantly, don’t give up! Keep asking them to do something, even if they only do it once every ten times. Even one response is a triumph.

About Autism

About Therapeutic Riding

My personal experiences as a therapeutic riding volunteer and other related information

Making a Difference, Therapeutic Riding

26 Responses to “Therapeutic Horseback Riding As Autism Treatment”

  1. risingrainbow says:

    My oldest grandchild is high functioning autistic. Horses have been really helpful to him.

  2. On The Bit says:

    Excellent post!

  3. GreyHorseMatters says:

    It’s wonderful that horses can help so much, but then again they are the best healers. It is easy to see you are dedicated and caring to your students. Thanks for another great informative post , it is always interesting to hear about your work. Where do you find the time for everything?

  4. Jackie says:

    MiKael – you’ll have to tell us a little more about your grandchild sometime, if you can.

    On The Bit – thanks! It’s easy to write well about stuff you’re passionate about.

    Grey Horse Matters – Fortunately for me, I actually get to work on my blog while I’m on the clock at work. I do it for fun and because I love the community and the educational aspects, but it’s also practice for my job. That helps. :-) I used to be really good at overextending myself, so when I graduated from college and got married I made a conscious decision to say “no!” to things and only do what was really important to me. Family, church, work, and my volunteering are my top priorities.

  5. gina taylor says:

    Hi, I like your blog and your focus on horses. However, I must comment on you writings about therapeutic riding as therapy. Therapeutic riding is not therapy or a form of therapy or a treatment. It appears that you are referring to Equine Assisted Activities; which are defined by NARHA as: Any center activity, mounted or unmounted, where the goal is not therapy but activity driven, i.e. therapeutic riding, grooming and stable management, shows, parades, demonstrations, etc., in which the center’s participants volunteers, instructors and equines are involved. EAA are supervised by a NARHA certified instructor at all centers. NARHA defines Equine Assisted Therapy as: A goal directed intervention in which a specially trained equine is an integral part of the tratment process. EAT is directed and/or provided by a human/health service professional with specific expertise and within the scope of their practice. NARHA defines therapeutic riding as: Mounted activities including traditional riding disciplines or adaptive riding activities conducted by a NARHA certified instructor. Therapeutic riding is not therapy, or a form of physical therapy. Therapeutic riding is a recreational or adaptive riding lesson for persons with disabilities. Careful distinction between these services can help protect riding establishments from lawsuits of fraud. There are many benefits to therapeutic riding as you have described and many riding students learn, grow and progress in therapeutic riding classes. I am glad that you are able to share your experience and hope that you will consider updating your blog and spreading the word about clarity in the Equine Assisted Activities and Therapies fields.If you would like more information feel free to contact me.

  6. Jackie says:

    Gina – Thanks for stopping by and for offering this added insight into the differences between Equine Assisted Activities, Equine Assisted Therapy, and Therapeutic Riding. Based on the definitions you provided, what we do at Pegasus and what I’m generally talking about is definitely therapeutic riding. I apologize if I haven’t been completely clear about that, and will keep it in mind for the future.

    Generally when I use the word “therapy” on my blog, I’m referring to the curative power or quality of working with horses – whether it’s for disabled riders or for anyone working with horses. I’m not referring to the treatment of disorders (although that is often a side effect!).I would argue that riding/grooming/caring for/being around horses is therapy in that it improves quality of life, whether it’s a medically sanctioned one or not. I can certainly understand the need for organizations and the medical community to be clear on the services they provide. My intent in examining therapeutic riding and other equine activities is to raise awareness of the benefits of working with horses.

    This is certainly an interesting topic and one that needs more attention. I’m going to ruminate on it a little and start a new post for the topic.

    While I’m coming from a horsey background, I very much appreciate the input from your medical background.

  7. HorseGal says:

    I am doing a project about this, and I just wanted to say how much this helped me!! Thank you!!

  8. cindy says:

    Are there any locations near or around Columbiana County for children…adults…etc.? Would really like to connect with them.

  9. Jackie says:


    I just emailed you a list of several accredited facilities and certified instructors that are close to your area. Let me know if you don’t get it for some reason. Hope it helps! And be sure to let me know how it goes if you do manage to get involved somewhere.

  10. Jeremy says:

    For anyone who is considering therapeutic riding you will not find anything better. I stumbled across it by luck, and I am so thankful I did. My younger son, age 5, is in love with horses and farm life in general, so when we were at an auction sometime ago I bought him his own pony to get him use to taking care of a horse. What has come of that purchase with my older son, age 7, who is diagnosed with asperger syndrome has been a miracle. We only get to see the horse on the weekends, but I have never seen my son in more control of himself ever since the first time he rode that pony. With every passing week he learns more and more control of himself and how to interact. The joy this pony has brought my family can never be replaced. This relationship with horses has gone way beyond therapy for my son. When ever we are around horses, no matter what type of a mood the horse is in, they stop what they are doing and come up to my son to say hello. I bought a semi-retired thoroughbred for myself. With all of the changes going on around the horse he obviously was very stressed when we got him home. My son with AS walked up to the fence around his stall and the horse calmed right down, walked over to him, and let my son pet him. I get teary just re-living the moment writing about it. My son is already asking when he gets to ride the new horse.

  11. Carol says:

    I volunteered at a therapeutic riding center for several years where the lead person was a speech therapist. Most of the riders were young children with autism — some very severe. It did have a huge beneficial effect on these children. Most rewarding were the tears of joy from one set of parents when their child spoke for the first time! I did see big improvements in the children and highly recommend it to any parent with an autistic child.

  12. melinda says:

    does anyone have any info on this in the winter haven Fl. area??? My son is autistic and I would love to get him involved in something like this……. please email me at

  13. Lizette says:

    I am writing a short story for school and came upon this website. I was wondering if you could give more information about your stables/students. In my short story I am writing about a girl with Autism and getting horse riding treatment. I do not know very much about it.

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  15. Shelly says:

    Hi Jackie,
    I am curious about something. We have a severely autistic, non-verbal 15 year old daughter. She loved riding the horse at school, so we decided to get a horse for her. We have a very gentle, 24 year old retired trail rider palamino quarter horse named Blondie. We’ve had her about two months now and while our daughter is ambivilent about riding Blondie (sometimes eager and sometimes avoiding), we have started to notice she is for the first time in her life, willing to experiment with expanding her diet. She ate 7 Chicken Strips from the standard school lunch tray today. That is the first meat she has ever eaten. Do you think the riding has any link to her willingness to expand her diet? Have you ever heard of this happening before? I’d appreciate your input!

  16. Wyatt Richardson says:

    there is still no permament solution for autism. we just have to take good care of the kids who are suffering autism.:’;

  17. physical therapy los angeles says:

    My friend did this and said that it was so amazing!! It may not necessarily cure anything, but it definitely helps the children socialize and feel more comfortable around animals as well as other people.


  18. Kellie says:

    Thank you so much for this blog! My three year old son was diagnosed with High Functioning Autism on Wednesday. The doctor said she really likes horse riding as part of treatment. My mom just so happens to have a horse and has been riding all her life. So we took our son out today and it was amazing. We thought he would be scared and would fight to get away from Daisy. He petted her, he kissed her, he sat on her, she walked a little with him on her back ( I was walking next to him holding him to make sure he stayed on) and he even laid down on her to hug her. Daisy was just as taken with him. She sniffed him and kept trying to get closer to him. It seriously felt like she knew he needed her and she just couldn’t wait to start helping. He used so much spontaneous speech saying, “Hi horse” and “I want up” or “I want down”. It was really wonderful and I know it will help him socially and emotionally to have that kind of connection with someone other than himself and us.

    Other than grooming and walking, what other activities can we do to encourage their bond and really help my son. If you know of any books or website I would really be grateful. Thanks!

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    I volunteered at a camp where they gave horseback riding lessons to children with autism and it was awesome seeing how happy they were to work with the horses, I definitely love the idea of these programs!

  21. Backup Camera says:

    My cousin Jack is low-functioning and my aunt takes him as often as she can to a riding therapy center. She said that it helps him immensely. I would love to volunteer at a place like this sometime.

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