Autism and Therapeutic Riding

Picture from pixabay.com

I am kicking off a new series today! Therapeutic riding is becoming more popular and more well-known as a therapeutic option in the special needs community. There is more research being done on the positive benefits of therapeutic riding for specific needs, including veterans, depression, and foster families. This series will explore the impact of therapeutic riding on specific disabilities. We will start with one of the most common disabilities that therapeutic riding centers see is clients with autism.

Horses can help riders learn how to walk, communicate, regulate their emotions, focus, and much more. Children and adults with autism often struggle to connect with others, have difficulty accepting change, and have trouble regulating their emotions. The horse makes a great partner to highlight all of these common behaviors.

Therapeutic riding or therapeutic horsemanship (may be unmounted) can help clients connect with a living being. This is especially important for people with autism who may have a difficult time connecting with others. There is both a physical and emotional connection with horses so clients do not necessarily need to touch a horse or have a conversation to connect. A pat or a hug means the same to the horse as a distant hello. Horses do not require or seek attention so clients can develop a connection on their own terms.

Horses in therapeutic settings are often referred to as “immediate feedback machines” because they instantly react to the situation around them. This is very helpful when working with clients with autism because there is an instantaneous reaction to a behavior. If a client comes in flapping their hands or arms, the horse may back away or prick their ears forward. This is a learning opportunity for the client to regulate their emotions before approaching the horse. If the client relaxes, the horse will relax. The mirroring of the behavior can help a client with autism understand how their actions impact those around them and can lead to self-regulation.

Horses are also amazing examples when it comes to facilitating change. Horses rely on routine and predictability, much like a client with autism may, but they need to be able to adapt in any given situation. On average, horses change homes seven times throughout their lives. They need to be able to adapt to a new surrounding in a reasonable amount of time.

People with autism also need to learn that change is inevitable and horses, and/or the barn situation, can provide an example of good coping skills. A client’s regular horse may turn up lame one lesson and the client needs to use a different horse. The barn may get all new grooming tools and the client needs to use an unfamiliar tool. There is construction happening nearby one lesson or a dog runs through the aisle or…. you get the picture. Having the horse be the example takes the focus off the client. It is not the client who is forced to handle the change, it is for the benefit of the horse that the change is occurring. This is a positive way to encourage adaptation to a situation in the barn that can carry over into a life skill.

Please note that everything in this blog is my own personal experience and opinion. I am not a researcher and I have not done any studies on the impact of therapeutic riding on any special need or disability. However, there are studies that have been done on this topic. The research into therapeutic riding is ever growing and the more interest there is in specific outcomes, the more widespread the research can become.

Here are a few studies done and articles written specifically on autism and therapeutic horseback riding:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6054954/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6178825/

https://www.cuanschutztoday.org/news/children-with-autism-spectrum-have-immediate-and-long-term-benefits-from-therapeutic-horseback-riding-researchers-show

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1750946713000330

This series will continue next week so check back in next Monday for the second installment! Let me know what you think in the comments below or contact me via email.

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