Benefits of Equine Therapy for Autism
By Vi Gilkes
There is an undeniable bond seen between humans and animals over the centuries. Looking back through history, the connection has evolved from animals serving our greater good by guarding our homes, or providing transport for us and our goods, to a deeper familial relationship. Animals have a way of bringing us into harmony with nature and within ourselves. Horses are used by physical, speech, and occupational therapists to reach their patients on a personal level through what is referred to as “Hippotherapy.” Children with autism also benefit from Equine Therapy due to the motor, emotional, and sensory sensations that come along with riding a horse.
Autistic children often have difficulty bonding emotionally to others. As the parent of an autistic child, you know that it is hard for your child to make eye contact, communicate what he or she is feeling, and express him/herself to those their loved ones. Rather than verbal communication, autistic children experience physical communication with the horses. They brush them, hug them, and pat them. By learning to care for the horse, they associate the care they provide with feelings and an emotional bridge is constructed. This bond can lead to social and communication skill production with other people in their life as well.
Autistic children can at times experience difficulty comprehending normal directions. By engaging in equine therapy, your child follows directions through a fun activity that makes taking direction easier to grasp and remember. They will also give the horse direction, which provides them with more opportunities to communicate. Your child is naturally motivated to move; thus, they are excited and motivated to communicate. During their therapy the cognitive concepts will naturally improve. For example, equine therapists have children throw colored balls into baskets while riding, touch their eyes, mouth, and ears during a song, and identify scenes—all incorporated during riding.
Balance and spatial orientation are experienced through the vestibular sense organs. These are located inside the inner ear and are stimulated through direction change, incline, and speed. Riding a horse helps liven these sensory preceptors, which in turn makes therapy more exciting and motivates your child to continue to be engaged.
Equine Therapy is highly beneficial to children with autism. It helps them develop the natural, core skills they need to function in society. Unfortunately, equine therapy is one of the most expensive therapies available for autistic children, but fortunately VTRC offers scholarship opportunities for parents who want to take advantage of equine therapy.
At Vincereos Therapeutic Riding Center (VTRC) we offer several programs including Hippotherapy, Equestrian-Assisted Learning, Therapeutic Riding and Therapeutic Driving. VTRC is continuing to develop new programs for our riders that will benefit them physically, cognitively and emotionally. Our newest program, Therapeutic Carriage Driving, has been in development for nearly two years and is spearheaded by Susan Guinan, VTRC’s Director of Development. Susan is passionate about extending horsemanship opportunities to all people regardless of their abilities, and we are thrilled with the launch of this new program.
Therapeutic driving provides opportunities for individuals who may not otherwise be able to participate in traditional riding programs. Though drivers are seated in a carriage behind the horse, the program is no less challenging than riding. Drivers become a team with their equine partner as both must work together to achieve the sequencing and maneuvering of carriage driving. The unique movements associated with carriage driving also benefit drivers with restricted mobility.
The reach of carriage driving is increasing within the equestrian community. Events for competition and leisure are growing, and therapeutic drivers are competing worldwide alongside able bodied competitors.
We seek to enrich the lives of our riders and encourage them to see beyond disability to possibility. Vinceremos means “to overcome” in Spanish, and at VTRC it is our mission to aim high and reach for the stars!