Even just on the physical level, the benefits of horse therapy for autistic kids are many. Riding on a horse can relax the child’s muscles and build core muscle strength and symmetry. Just staying in place on top of the horse can promote proper balance and posture, as well as helping the child feel where she is in space, which is one concept that many autistic children struggle with. The child can also have improved sensory integration because all of her senses need to be in tune in order to get the most out of riding. Riding a horse can also improve hand-eye coordination. Physical therapy and other therapies often tries to address many of these issues with autistic children, but in this case, the autistic child can be practicing each of these skills in an enjoyable environment, with nothing more than a horse as her teacher.
Social and Emotional Benefits
In addition to its physical benefits, horse therapy for autistic kids can impact the child emotionally and socially. The child will need to learn how to concentrate for long periods of time and to be extremely patient, two skills which are often a struggle for autistic kids.The child also gains self-control and self-confidence by virtue of the fact that he can ride on his own and work together with such a large and powerful animal. “Once children realize what they can achieve their self-esteem increases in leaps and bounds. Imagine what it must feel like to lead an animal through an obstacle course, stopping and starting when you want to, when you usually find it difficult to concentrate, communicate or stay in control?” says Franklin Levinson, who developed Equine Facilitated Learning (EFL), a type of horse therapy.
Perhaps most importantly, the horses chosen for horse therapy are gentle and calm, and the kids can bond with them in a way that they often cannot bond with other people. Many autistic kids who undergo horse therapy find that they can form an attachment with a horse, and they can then transfer this ability so that they will later be able to form attachments to people as well. They need to learn how to communicate with the horse effectively, as well as with the riders around them and the instructor. In fact, some autistic children who were nonverbal before therapy say their first words while riding.
Before attempting horse therapy for autistic kids, however, it is important to realize that many autistic kids have a negative response to the horses on the first day of therapy. Children may tantrum or have other severe autistic behaviors, but as soon as the child is on the horse, this behavior usually subsides. At subsequent therapy visits, the child often has no adverse reaction to the horses at all, except for when the therapist changes some aspect of the riding process.
This post is part of the series: Horses and Autism
How can horses help children and adults with autism? This series discusses horse therapy and other situation in which horses can help kids and adults deal with autistic tendencies.