Equine Therapy: Much More Than Just Horsing Around

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Animal-assisted therapy has become an advanced therapeutic art. These therapies offer a variety of benefits to children and adults with various kinds of disability, including the autism spectrum disorders, cerebral palsy and other physical disabilities.

I recently attended a training seminar on a few of the many animal-assisted therapies (AAT) available to children struggling with various disabilities. AAT has become better known and more highly regarded in the past several years, as evidence for its benefits has mounted. But despite its already established reputation, I was still quite surprised to learn just how advanced the state of this therapeutic art has become. And I was especially impressed with the evidence regarding Equine Therapy (ET) and its ability to promote specific skill development in children diagnosed with one of the autism spectrum disorders (ASD).

The workshop I attended gave special attention to ET for children with ASD, cerebral palsy (CP), and some of the various neuromuscular disorders, such as muscular dystrophy (MD). Children with these conditions have some very unique needs of their therapeutic encounters to be sure, with some of the children being more challenged by issues related to freedom and ease of movement, and others being more challenged by tasks that require good communication skill. But these children also share some common needs, and ET appears to provide them with the common benefits of confidence (gained through the successful repetition of tasks), knowledge (gained through firsthand experience in relating to and communicating with another creature), development of greater muscular strength and coordination, and improved sense of self-efficacy (as they experience the inevitable result of learning and mastering a variety of skills). And while horse riding can also be a lot of fun, the research is demonstrating time and again that it is ever so much more than a pleasurable activity.

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Therapeutic horse riding and ASD appear meant for one another on many levels. Children with ASD often have difficulty with both forming emotional bonds and communication. They also have a natural affinity for repetitive, ritualistic activity. Bonding with a horse does not require them to make direct eye-to-eye contact or engage in two-way affect-laden speech. They learn quickly which pats and strokes the horse finds comforting, the essential ritual moves and motions the horse will respond to when taking direction, and the particular tone and words that the horse prefers them to use. And because communicating with the horse is more about being sensitive to its gestures, and giving it gentle nods and prods, as opposed to uttering sophisticated words and complex phrases, they find the horse’s “language” easier to comprehend, and they fairly quickly learn the most essential aspects of effective two-way equine communication.

ASD children can find therapeutic horse riding desirable in many ways. They sometimes find the gentle rocking motion that accompanies their rides as pleasurable and comforting. And the simple, repetitive, easy to learn, and routine elements of riding are just the kind of activity the ASD child might naturally gravitate toward anyway. With a seasoned and well-trained horse, close supervision, a predictable journey path, etc., there’s also less chance for the kind of sensory overload that can overwhelm the child. So, ET can not only provide a safe and simple path to learning the essentials of emotional bonding, communication, and self-control, it can also lay a solid foundation for expanding on those skills and generalizing them to other, more challenging situations in the human world.

Equine therapy can be custom-tailored to a disabled child’s special needs. For example, the animal can be put through specific paces and exercises that help the rider develop better strength and coordination in various muscle groups. And sometimes, it’s the ride itself that takes center stage. For a wheelchair-bound child, just experiencing a higher degree of mobility as well as the sense of power that accompanies being able to guide and direct motion can be consciousness-expanding as well as exhilarating. But most importantly, therapeutic horse riding can help meet what could arguably be called a child’s greatest need: having fun. And perhaps that’s why ET has become a favorite not just for disabled children, but also for those professionals working to assist them. With ET, as with other types of AAT, children can gain new experience, master previously under-developed skills, and acquire new strengths, all while enjoying themselves and forming lasting positive impressions about themselves, the nature of their work, and those with whom they have been working.

Equine therapy is just one of many of the animal-assisted therapies available. Canine therapy can provide benefits not possible with horses. For one thing, dogs can not only form a more intimate bond with a child, but they can also live with the child and become a full member of the child’s family. They can also be trained to perform various service and child welfare-monitoring functions (the use of service dogs is perhaps the oldest known form of AAT). Dolphins offer unique therapy activity benefits because of their high intelligence and fondness for interaction with humans. And when a child engages in therapeutic play and exercise in the aquatic environment they gain an opportunity to develop greater muscular strength and flexibility while relaxing at the same time. And because children so naturally seem to enjoy their time with these mammals, interaction time with them can be used as a reinforcement for their willingness to tackle the more difficult tasks.

The state of the art in AAT is such that many specialized therapies have been developed using a wide variety of animals and pets to help ameliorate the difficulties associated with several disabling conditions affecting both children and adults. And information about these therapies is becoming more available all the time. This blog features a very interesting article on the general topic by Libby Webber (see “Animal Magnetism: Pets as Therapy”), and there are many other sources of information available on the web (e.g., see the National Center on Physical Activity and Disability (NCPAD) website), and a few that provide information on some very good books on the subject (e.g., Learning Abilities Books). Naturally, the use of any of these therapies should always be discussed with the professional treating a person’s condition. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that animal-assisted therapy can be a powerful tool in the arsenal of any professional working with the disabled. And it’s also become evident that a carefully planned ride on one of our equine friends can be a lot more to an ASD child than just horsing around.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Pat Orner Oliver on .

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