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
- 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.
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 Therapeutic Riding
- North American Riding for the Handicapped Association: NARHA is the governing body in for therapeutic riding. They provide training and certification for instructors and facilities as well as various resources. Visit their site to learn more or to find a certified instructor or accredited facility in your area (select your state and click go for all premiere accredited facilities and registered instructors).
- Therapeutic riding articles on Equisearch.com
- U.S. Equestrian Paralympics news
- Official FEI Para-Equestrian Site
My personal experiences as a therapeutic riding volunteer and other related information