The healing emotional bond between humans and horses has been recognized for thousands of years. In modern times, the horse is used by occupational, physical and speech therapists as a treatment tool in the specialty area of hippotherapy. Therapeutic riding instructors also help children with disabilities by teaching them how to ride a horse. Perhaps more than anyone, children with autism benefit from the motor, sensory and emotional aspects of being on a horse.
Physical Benefits of Riding
Children with autism often have decreased coordination, strength and muscle tone that make them appear floppy and clumsy. Riding the horse develops strength as the child constantly adjusts his body to stay on and control the horse during changes in speed, direction, hills and curves on a trail. Controlling the reins to steer or stop helps the child develop coordination between the left and right sides of the body. Therapists incorporate opportunities to coordinate position changes, such as turning from facing forward to facing backward. This helps the child with autism to sequence motor steps and follow directions. Assuming and maintaining vaulting positions such as kneeling or standing on top of the horse further helps the child develop balance and motor control.
Sensory Benefits of Riding
Children with autism usually love the vestibular sensory stimulation provided by the horse during a walk or trot. The vestibular (or balance) sense organs located inside the child's inner ears are stimulated with changes in direction, speed and inclines. The forceful movement of the child’s body being pushed against the horse stimulates the child’s muscles and joints; the touch of the horse’s fur stimulates his skin. In addition, the sounds and smells of the horse and entire equine environment are so exciting that children who may refuse therapy in other settings are often motivated to cooperate.
Developing Cognitive and Language Skills
Children with autism typically struggle to comprehend directions and communicate. Riding a horse provides numerous opportunities to engage in activities that require following directions--such as touching the mane and tail, steering the reins at the junction or saying “Go” after the therapist says, “One, two, three." The horse provides a natural learning environment because the child is motivated to move, and the therapist can stop the horse to let the child know that he must listen and respond before movement resumes. Cognitive concepts such as counting (while doing sit-ups on top of the horse), naming colors (of balls thrown into the basket while riding), sequencing steps (to touch one's eyes, ears, nose and mouth during a song) or identifying pictures (hanging on the wall in the arena) can be incorporated into a therapy session.
Emotional Bond Between Child and Horse
Children with disabilities know that the horse will love them for who they are despite their difficulties in speaking or how they look. They may be encouraged to brush the horse before mounting, hug the mane and give frequent pats to let the horse know that he is doing a good job and put away part of the tack (such as the neck strap or reins) when the session ends. Caring for a horse helps the child learn about the feelings of another living being. Hopefully, that bond will help the child with autism develop social and communication skills in all areas of his life.