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Equine Therapy for Autism

Discover the transformative power of autism and equine therapy, enhancing behavior and social skills.

steven zauderer
Steven Zauderer
June 3, 2024
9 min read
min read

Equine Therapy for Autism

Equine therapy, or the use of horses in a therapeutic context, has emerged as a potentially effective intervention method for individuals with autism. The interaction between the individual and the horse, whether through care or riding, can foster a range of therapeutic benefits.

Therapeutic Benefits

Equine therapy, specifically therapeutic horseback riding, has been shown to significantly benefit individuals with autism. A 10-week therapeutic horseback riding intervention resulted in significant improvement in children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Such benefits of riding extend beyond the session, with teachers noting improvements in the classroom long after the riding sessions have concluded.

Meanwhile, Therapeutic Horsemanship, which involves teaching individuals with autism how to care for horses in addition to riding them, can help riders improve skills such as walking, talking, connecting, focusing, behaving, and learning. The responsibility of handling a horse can provide a different perspective and help individuals with autism see the world from the horse's viewpoint.

Equine therapy programs like GallopNYC set individual goals for each rider and work patiently on developing skills such as speech, socialization, and fitness. The program focuses on encouraging positive behaviors and gently discouraging negative behaviors through the desire to ride. The approach is referred to as "horsemanship" to emphasize teaching riders how to care for horses in addition to riding them.

Research on Equine Therapy

Research offers promising support for the use of equine therapy in helping individuals with autism. For instance, equine therapy has been extended to young adults on the autism spectrum to help them develop workplace skills. Through a project funded by Autism Speaks, young adults were trained to work with horses, which not only enhanced their sense of responsibility and communication skills but also boosted their self-confidence to try new experiences. The program equipped the interns with valuable skills that could be applied in various settings.

However, it's important to note that the evidence for the positive effects of equine therapy on perceptuo-motor, cognitive, and functional skills is currently limited. More research is needed to fully understand and quantify the benefits of equine therapy for individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a complex developmental condition that involves persistent challenges in social interaction, speech and nonverbal communication, and restricted/repetitive behaviors. The effects of ASD and the severity of symptoms are different in each person. In this section, we will explore the characteristics of autism and the challenges faced by individuals on the spectrum.

Characteristics of Autism

Autism is a spectrum condition, meaning that while all autistic individuals share certain difficulties, their condition will affect them in different ways. Some autistic individuals also have learning disabilities, mental health issues, or other conditions.

One common characteristic of autism is the preference for routines. Autistic individuals often navigate the unpredictable world by following a routine, such as traveling the same way to school or work, wearing the same clothes, or eating the same food for breakfast [3].

Another common characteristic is sensory sensitivity. Many autistic individuals experience over- or under-sensitivity to light, sound, taste, touch, and other sensory stimuli, which can lead to anxiety or physical discomfort. Simple adjustments can make environments more autism-friendly [3].

Autistic individuals often have intense and highly focused interests, which can be advantageous academically and in the workplace. However, this intense focus may lead to neglecting other aspects of their lives.

Challenges Faced by Individuals

Autistic individuals face numerous challenges, many of which are rooted in societal misunderstanding and mistreatment of autism. For instance, social interactions can be a significant source of anxiety for many autistic adults. Recognizing triggers and finding coping mechanisms is crucial, as over one third of autistic people have serious mental health issues [3].

Another challenge faced by autistic individuals is communication. Many autistic people have difficulty with understanding and expressing language as used in typical social interactions. Difficulties may include starting and maintaining conversations, understanding non-literal language such as idioms and metaphors, and using gestures and facial expressions.

Furthermore, the need for routine and fear of change can also present significant challenges. Any unexpected changes or disruptions to their routine can cause extreme stress and anxiety for autistic individuals.

By understanding the characteristics of autism and the challenges faced by individuals on the spectrum, therapies such as equine therapy can be better tailored to meet their needs. This understanding is vital for creating a supportive and inclusive society for all individuals with autism.

Impact of Equine Therapy

Equine therapy, a form of animal-assisted therapy, has shown promising results in individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The interaction with horses in a therapeutic setting appears to have beneficial effects on both behavioral skills and social communication.

Behavioral Improvements

Equine-Assisted Activities and Therapies (EAATs) have been recognized for their potential to substantially improve the social and behavioral skills of children with ASD. According to studies cited by NCBI, meta-analyses revealed significant improvements in social cognition, communication, irritability, and hyperactivity domains. However, the same studies found no marked changes in social awareness, mannerisms, motivation, lethargy, stereotypy, or inappropriate speech domains.

It's important to note that the extent to which these improvements occur can vary. Factors such as the duration and type of intervention can impact treatment outcomes. Nonetheless, the overall impact of equine therapy on behavioral improvement remains positive and further research may illuminate additional benefits.

Social Communication Enhancement

In addition to behavioral improvements, equine therapy has been shown to have positive effects on social communication in individuals with ASD. The rhythmic movements of horseback riding can activate the vestibular systems of children with ASD, enhancing speech production and learning outcomes.

Furthermore, EAAT programs can enhance social interaction, socialization, and stereotyping behaviors of individuals with autism. The structured interaction with horses in a controlled environment gives these individuals a unique opportunity to practice and enhance their social communication skills.

Studies have shown that equine therapy can benefit children and adolescents with ASD, with positive effects reported in terms of social, communication/language, and stress/behavior, as well as a reduction in autism symptoms [2].

The impact of equine therapy on individuals with autism is a promising field of research. The potential for behavioral improvements and social communication enhancement underscores the value of these therapeutic interventions in addressing the challenges faced by those with ASD. As more research is conducted, it's likely that the benefits of equine therapy will become increasingly clear, providing another tool in the ongoing effort to help those with autism lead fulfilling and productive lives.

Types of Equine Therapy

There are several forms of equine therapy that can be used to help individuals with autism. These therapeutic approaches utilize the interaction between the person and the horse to encourage growth and development. In this section, we will explore two popular types: therapeutic horseback riding and equine-facilitated learning.

Therapeutic Horseback Riding

Therapeutic horseback riding has been shown to significantly benefit individuals with autism. This form of equine therapy involves a structured program where individuals learn to ride horses. A 10-week therapeutic horseback riding intervention with children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder resulted in significant improvements, even beyond the session, with teachers noting improvements in the classroom long after the riding sessions concluded.

Programs like GallopNYC set individual goals for each rider and work patiently on developing skills such as speech, socialization, and fitness. The program focuses on encouraging positive behaviors and gently discouraging negative behaviors through the desire to ride [1].

Equine-Facilitated Learning

Equine-facilitated learning, also known as therapeutic horsemanship, involves teaching individuals with autism how to care for and handle horses, in addition to riding them. This approach provides a unique perspective and helps individuals with autism see the world from the horse's viewpoint.

The responsibility of handling a horse can improve skills such as walking, talking, connecting, focusing, behaving, and learning [1]. The approach is referred to as "horsemanship" to emphasize teaching riders how to care for horses in addition to riding them.

Equine therapy has also been extended to young adults on the autism spectrum to help them develop workplace skills. A project funded by Autism Speaks trained young adults to work with horses, which not only enhanced their sense of responsibility and communication skills but also boosted their self-confidence to try new experiences. The program equipped the interns with valuable skills that could be applied in various settings [1].

Conclusion

Both therapeutic horseback riding and equine-facilitated learning provide opportunities for individuals with autism to connect with horses and learn valuable skills. While the evidence for positive effects of equine therapy on perceptuo-motor, cognitive, and functional skills is currently limited, there is a significant impact on behavioral skills and some effect on social communication [2].

Effectiveness of Equine Therapy

Understanding the effectiveness of equine therapy in treating autism is based on research findings and long-term benefits observed in individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Studies and Findings

Studies on autism and equine therapy have shown promising results. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, equine therapy has beneficial effects on behavioral skills and to some extent on social communication in individuals with ASD. However, evidence for positive effects on perceptuo-motor, cognitive, and functional skills is currently limited.

In another study, equine therapy was shown to benefit children and adolescents with ASD, with positive effects reported in terms of social, communication/language, and stress/behavior. The therapy was also found to reduce autism symptoms.

Equine-assisted activities and therapies (EAATs) have also been shown to substantially improve the social and behavioral skills of children with ASD. Meta-analyses revealed significant improvements in social cognition, communication, irritability, and hyperactivity domains, but not in social awareness, mannerisms, motivation, lethargy, stereotypy, or inappropriate speech domains.

Long-Term Benefits

Equine therapy shows potential for long-term benefits. EAAT programs can enhance the social interaction, socialization, and stereotyping behaviors of individuals with autism. However, the extent to which these improvements occur and the impact of intervention duration and type on treatment outcomes have not been thoroughly investigated.

Equine-assisted therapies, in particular, have been found to be the most widely utilized animal-assisted therapy for individuals with ASD. The rhythmic movements of horseback riding can activate the vestibular systems of children with ASD, enhancing speech production and learning outcomes.

Overall, while more research is needed to fully understand the impact and efficacy of equine therapy for autism, the existing studies and findings show promise in its ability to improve behavioral and social skills in individuals with ASD. Equine therapy may serve as a valuable tool in the arsenal of interventions available to individuals with ASD and their families.

Implementing Equine Therapy

Equine therapy, an unconventional yet effective therapeutic approach, is gaining traction in the realm of autism treatment. Here, we'll delve into the structure of equine therapy programs and share some parental perspectives on the benefits of equine therapy.

Program Structure

Equine therapy programs, such as GallopNYC, formulate individual objectives for each participant, focusing on the enhancement of diverse skills like speech, socialization, and fitness. These programs foster positive behaviors and gently dissuade negative behaviors through the motivation to ride. Their approach is often termed "horsemanship," emphasizing not just riding, but also teaching individuals about horse care.

Equine therapy has even been tailored to young adults on the autism spectrum to support the development of workplace skills. A project funded by Autism Speaks trained young adults to work with horses, which not only cultivated their sense of responsibility and communication skills but also boosted their self-confidence to embrace new experiences. The program equipped the interns with valuable skills that could be transferred to various settings.

Equine-assisted activities and therapies (EAATs), particularly equine-assisted therapies, are the most commonly used animal-assisted therapy for individuals with ASD. The rhythmic movements of horseback riding can stimulate the vestibular systems of children with ASD, enhancing speech production and learning outcomes.

Parental Perspectives

Feedback from parents reveals that equine therapy has had a significant positive impact on their children with autism. One mother stated, "Our family is still beaming and glowing after seeing my son on a horse! It's a dream come true. I have never seen him so responsive to any therapy so immediately!" This immediate and positive response seen in children with autism during horseback riding sessions underscores the effectiveness of equine therapy [1].

In summary, equine therapy programs offer a structured, individual-centered approach to aiding those with autism. Feedback from parents and participants underscores the effectiveness of these programs. As the understanding of autism and equine therapy continues to evolve, these programs continue to offer hope and tangible benefits to those on the autism spectrum.

References

[1]: https://www.autismspeaks.org/expert-opinion/equine-therapy-autism

[2]: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6178825/

[3]: https://www.autism.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/what-is-autism

[4]: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9915993/

steven zauderer

CEO of CrossRiverTherapy - a national ABA therapy company based in the USA.

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