Horse Therapy for Autism
Therapeutic horse riding, also known as hippotherapy, is a treatment method that assists autistic children with managing their symptoms.
The sessions are designed to help them attain their emotional, cognitive, linguistic, and/or sensory objectives.
Hippotherapy techniques can be implemented when your child is on and off the horse. Sessions can be fun and entertaining, and you might find it easy to convince your child to participate in horse riding therapy programs.
In this article, we’ll go over all the information that you should know about hippotherapy for autistic children, alongside a list of the best therapeutic horse riding programs in the United States.
Is hippotherapy effective for children with autism?
Yes, hippotherapy can help children that were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) improve their communication skills, physical capabilities, and psychological well-being.
This is because therapists use the horse’s movements to stimulate your child’s senses. In turn, the child’s visual, emotional, and bodily responses will tell the therapist which of the horse’s moves yield positive or desirable results.
Over time, hippotherapy enables children with ASD to fulfill their psychological and emotional ambitions. Several studies show that therapeutic horse riding is effective at reducing ASD symptoms.
Here are some of the main benefits of hippotherapy:
Creating an Emotional Bond
You should consider hippotherapy for your child with ASD if they are emotionally disconnected and/or struggle with forming relationships with others. On an emotional level, hippotherapy reduces stress and enhances the brain’s ability to produce certain hormones.
First of all, almost all people, regardless of their age or ASD diagnoses, tend to form emotional bonds with horses.
When your child engages in horsemanship (they groom and feed the horse, for example), the part of their brain that is responsible for emotional connectivity gets stimulated.
As a result, your autistic child’s ability to bond with other humans will evolve and improve as they continue their horse therapy sessions.
Secondly, horse riding motivates and challenges autistic children, which allows their brains to produce higher volumes of hormones that their system lacks, including:
- Oxytocin: This is a hormone that regulates anxiety and minimizes fear. Autistic children have a reduced quantity of oxytocin in their bodies in comparison to their neurotypical counterparts.
- Cortisol: Cortisol has a direct impact on memory, alongside other physical bodily functions like metabolism and immune responses. Your autistic child’s cortisol levels will go up when oxytocin does.
- Progesterone: When the body doesn’t create enough progesterone, a person may become aggressive, moody, and easily-angered. Since the amount of oxytocin and progesterone are positively correlated, hippotherapy enhances both of those hormones.
In a few words, therapeutic horse riding can boost your autistic child’s emotional well-being. Its benefits to the brain are psychological and physical.
Cognitive and Language Skills Development
Children with autism commonly struggle with cognitive issues that impact their memory, self-control, and ability to stay focused.
Horse therapists address these challenges by intentionally directing the horse’s movements during sessions. They may do so to refine the rider’s balance, motor skills, sensory skills, and/or cognitive systems.
The hippotherapy practitioner’s methods can involve controlling the horse as your child is riding it and while they are walking, grooming, or feeding the animal. Some studies have shown that autistic kids developed better cognitive and language skills after they partook in therapeutic horse riding sessions.
For instance, when tested for their problem-solving abilities, children with ASD that worked with a hippotherapy practitioner made faster decisions than those who didn’t.
In the same vein, hippotherapy can boost your autistic son or daughter’s sensory capabilities, especially their motor skills.
When a child rides a horse and directs it (verbally and non-verbally), their balance, attention span, and logical sequencing skills all improve. This is because therapeutic horse riding engages and stimulates the brain, specifically the sensory receptors and channels that are responsible for vision, hearing, and touching.
Practitioners direct horses in a way that stimulates these channels and encourages the body to produce certain hormones that autistic individuals lack, such as oxytocin. Some activities are particularly effective for achieving this goal.
What will a horse therapy session look like?
Hippotherapy typically entails two types of tasks:
- Mounted Activities: These are tasks and actions that your son or daughter would complete while they ride the horse.
- Non-Mounted Activities: In contrast, non-mounted activities are done when the child is walking, grooming, and/or feeding the horse.
Here is what the former would look like:
- Your child and the therapist throw a ball between one another.
- The rider catches rings and drops them in certain spots.
- The kid holds an object as they ride the horse.
- Obstacle challenge games.
Mounted activities allow children with ASD to boost their balance, focus, sensory skills, and more.
Meanwhile, examples of non-mounted hippotherapy include:
- Guiding the horse or holding its leash without riding it.
- Grooming and cleaning the pony.
- Feeding the horse.
One of the main benefits of non-mounted activities is that your autistic child can get in touch with their emotions and become better at forming bonds with others. Non-mounted horse therapy also improves your child’s cognitive, sensory, and language skills.
To make hippotherapy fun and exciting for children with ASD, practitioners may play games with them or host group activities.
Encouraging your autistic child through hippotherapy
As a parent, it is crucial to support your child as they participate in horse therapy sessions. When your kid feels uncomfortable or bored, they may not reap the full advantages of this type of treatment.
The following ways can help you with encouraging your child throughout this process:
- Set cognitive, educational, emotional, and/or other goals ahead of time and discuss them with the therapist at an early point.
- Keep track of your child’s progress towards the said goals. Similarly, you should give the therapist regular feedback.
- Attend the sessions so that your son or daughter feel more comfortable. This is particularly important when they’re just starting out.
- Get trained or educate yourself on how to practice hippotherapy so that you can assist the practitioner and be there for your son or daughter during these sessions.
- Embrace your child’s excitement for horse riding. For instance, you could ride horses with them recreationally when they have free time.
How you support your child depends on the program that you enroll them in and the frequency of the sessions.
Keep in mind that there are many hippotherapy providers in the U.S., and their programs can be different from one another.
Hippotherapy Programs for Autistic Children
Now that you learned about the benefits of hippotherapy, what you can expect at a session, and how to encourage your child to take up therapeutic horse riding, you may want to start looking for programs in your area.
In light of this, we put together a list of the best hippotherapy providers in the United States. Each of them offers unique programs that your autistic son or daughter can join.
The American Hippotherapy Association (AHA)
The American Hippotherapy Association has a variety of valuable hippotherapy resources, ranging from therapy programs to large events.
If you are looking for a horse therapist for your child, AHA’s Find a Therapist website tool gives you access to a list of highly-trained and certified providers. You can use their filters to narrow down your search by city and state.
The Center for America’s First Horse
For those who appreciate the outdoors, the Center for America’s First Horse has a 60-acre facility in Johnson, Vermont. Your kid can enroll in top-level equine therapy sessions that are jointly offered by the Center for America’s First Horse and Johnson State College.
This option is especially ideal if you want to travel or take a trip out of town. Families that want to hike and explore wildlife can enjoy the facility’s trails while their children attain the hippotherapy treatment that they need.
Here are the main features and benefits that the Center for America’s First Horse provides:
- Access to indoor and outdoor arenas.
- A specialized equine training playground.
- Nearby hiking trails.
- Year-round sessions, including summer courses.
- The ability to pick between group programs for children and one-on-one hippotherapy sessions.
Eagala’s more than 500 therapeutic horse riding programs are available across the U.S. This organization’s activities are tailored towards individuals and families.
Eagala also trains and certifies horse therapists, which makes it a reliable and efficient treatment provider for your autistic son or daughter.
In fact, Eagala’s mission and vision revolve around upholding top-level professional standards and high-quality care.
What makes this organization unique is their wide range of in-person and online programs.
High Hopes has the following hippotherapy services and resources:
- Carriage Driving: A team of therapists, mental health professionals, and educators will teach your autistic kid how to ride horses in a manner that improves their physical and speech/language-related needs.
- Therapeutic Riding: This is ideal if you want your kid to develop emotional bonds with the horse and work on their balance/motor skills.
- Unmounted Equine Learning Program (ELP): High Hopes customizes their EPL program based on the individual needs of your child, whether they are cognitive, emotional, physical and/or sensory.
One of the best things about High Hopes is that they operate throughout the school year, in addition to offering summer sessions.
Horse riding therapy benefits autistic children because it stimulates their brains and makes their cognitive, linguistic, and emotional skills better.
Hippotherapy is fun. Parents can easily encourage their kids to participate, and there are many programs to pick from.
Above all, therapeutic horse riding addresses your son or daughter’s psychological and physical needs in a very entertaining and engaging way.
We hope you found this article about hippotherapy helpful. If you want to learn more about ABA therapy or other autism related subjects check out the rest of our blog.