Equine Therapy for Autism

Equine Therapy


Anecdotal stories pore in about the wonderful and therapeutic effects that animals have on children with autism. Reports from Thailand about children on the spectrum riding elephants leave me wishing our elephants weren’t confined to the zoo. But Hippotherapy and Therapeutic Riding are available for our children to benefit from riding a large animal — namely, the horse.

Hippotherapy, derived from the Greek word “hippo” for horse, is a physical therapy provided under a physician’s supervision as part of a comprehensive therapeutic program benefiting individuals of all ages with physical and/or developmental disabilities. Therapeutic Riding has many of the same benefits, but it is more of a recreational riding program for the disabled and does not usually involve a physician’s supervision. 

Hippotherapy and Therapeutic Riding use a horse’s multidimensional rhythmic movement, which resembles the natural walking gait of human’s to achieve specific therapeutic goals. Specially trained physical therapists, occupational therapists and speech-language therapists have reported the following results in patients with developmental disabilities:

* Relaxed Muscles 
* Increased Balance 
* Greater Muscle Strength 
* Sharpened Hand-Eye Coordination 
* Better Sense of Body Awareness 
* Better Sense of Self Control
* Better Sense of Self Confidence
* Improved Communication
* Improved Concentration
* Improved Socialization
* Improved Patience
* Improved Fine Motor Coordination
* Improved Sensory Integration

A horse moves a person in multiple ways by tilting, rotating and moving the rider, which would take an entire session of difficult physical therapy exercises to achieve. Sitting on a horse improves core muscle strength, muscle symmetry, balance, posture, flexibility, circulation, coordination and breathing (which encourages speech). Hippotherapy can greatly improve an individual with autism’s sense of their own bodies in space. Often riding bareback, the child receives sensations from the horse’s movements, making a child aware of his or her body in relation to the horse. The tactile sensations the child receives from the horse’s fuzzy skin, rough mane and tail, as well as the soft nose also help to draw the child out of their shell.

The excitement of riding encourages speech. Non-verbal autistic children have been known to suddenly start talking in order to use the horse’s name and get it moving.

Special relationships develop with the horses who are specifically chosen and trained to be gentle, patient and calm. The unconditional, non-judgmental bond between the horse and the patient encourages the child to form an attachment with another living being, which translates into other aspects of their lives.

It should be noted that children with autism can be initially upset by the new environment and activity of riding, but that rapidly subsides when the riding gets underway. Some equine therapy ranches have a policy of letting the horse pick the child, a unique method that has had excellent results. A staff person leads a child to a horse, and watches for the horse’s reaction. If the horse dips his head or nuzzles the child, the child has been “chosen.” 

As the individual’s with autism’s confidence grows, therapists frequently see them making eye contact with their horse, then with people. Some riders progress to learning how to groom and tack and otherwise take care of their animal, a milestone in assuming responsibility.

Equine therapy has a calming effect on individuals on the spectrum and has the added benefit of getting our largely urbanized youth back out into nature.

13 Responses to Equine Therapy for Autism

  1. Thanks for the detailed benefits of equine therapy!

    Claire Dorotik, M.A., author, ON THE BACK OF A HORSE: Harnessing the Healing Power of the Human-Equine Bond

  2. Kim Noll says:

    As a mother of a young man who has PDD which is on the Autism Spectrum. I have seen first hand the benefits of children and horseback riding. It is amazing to see the changes that take place when human and horse when they bond and become a team. My son loves his horse Muffin Man and he loves all the aspects of riding and caring for his horse. I am so thankful for this wonderful friendship that develops between the two and the benefits that they both recieve.

  3. Susan says:

    Thank you both for writing. Kim, I’m happy for you that you son has Muffin Man!


  4. Margaret says:

    Fabulous! Horses can also tell you about a lot about yourself. I have always considered my son to be very much in tune with energy and even refer to him as my little thoroughbred. He is my mirror, just as the horses are our mirrors- which explains why they love being with our little ones who are so pure and not caught up in their thoughts. I recently got to experience a horse whispering life coach retreat that changed how I interacted with my son and has changed our lives. I am now clear with my intentions so I am not sending mixed signals, which will lead a horse to find someone else who can keep them safe and fed. Our home is so much more peaceful and power struggles are now extremely rare (and that is when I am in my head :) ). Thanks again for this great post!!

  5. Susan says:

    That’s interesting. It reminds of the man who lived among wild mustangs and learned their nonverbal language. I’ve often used the phrase “autism whisperer”. Kids with autism are keyed into energies, that’s for sure. I think that’s part of the special bond they feel with animals. Thanks for writing…SM

  6. Debbie K. says:

    Fascinating article! I have a good friend who takes at least one of her boys for this therapy, and it really has helped him become more verbal. I keep meaning to talk to her about this for my son, who has PDD-NOS, ADHD and SPD. Even though it might be tough at first (“It should be noted that children with autism can be initially upset by the new environment and activity of riding”–gee, you think???), it would be a great way to get him outside and away from the computer and video games. He has no interest in sports, but he does like animals. This could be a good thing for us. Thanks!

  7. Susan says:

    Thanks for your comments. I’d like to get my son off the computer and onto a horse as well.


  8. Sue Coombes says:

    Thank you for a very well written article giving the possible benefits of hippotherapy and how it seems to work. I use horses with children with autism and have seen some very positive effects. It is wonderful to see :)

  9. Susan says:

    I’m glad you liked the article, esp as someone with first hand knowledge.


  10. I am Papa to a wonderful little girl that happens to be autistic. A few years ago her dad and I mounted her up on one of my horses. It was a little scarey for her at first but we took our time and all went well. Long story short – if you have a little one, normal or not, they probably need a blanket – check it out at: http://www.buybabyblanketsnow.com/equestrian-center. I want to offer this to other special needs kids and service members as well.

  11. Jessica says:

    Dont forget:
    Working with Autism, located in Los Angeles, has helped hundreds of children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder to achieve their maximum potential for independence. http://www.workingwithautism.com

  12. Ann Kilter says:

    Here is some more anecdotal testimony. Our three kids, two on the spectrum and one with learning disabilities, benefited greatly from equine therapy. They road for four years, going from riding with sidewalkers to independent riding; something they could not achieve on bikes.

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Did You Know?

  • * In 1970, Autism affected 1 out of 10,000 children
  • * Autism now affects 1 out of 88 children
  • * Autism affects 1 in 54 boys
  • * 1.7 million Americans have some form of autism
  • * 4 out of 5 autistic children are boys

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