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Equine-Assisted Therapy for Children with Autism


Billiejean Kirkland in a riding session with volunteers at Mississippi State University's Therapeutic Riding Program.

By Leigh Ballard

The incidence of Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome diagnoses has risen dramatically in recent years. These are sub-categories of a larger category called Pervasive Developmental Disorders (PDD). Neither of these disorders is curable, but both are treatable; most treatments include behavior modification, physical therapy, and social stimulation.
Symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) vary greatly from person to person, but often include variations of poor language, motor and social skills. Equine-assisted therapy has been very successful for development of these skills in many children with autism, because it addresses communication with the horse and therapist, response to stimuli, and motor and sensory skills involved in the riding. Therapeutic riding also helps many riders with disabilities other than autism achieve physical, emotional and psychological goals.

Many autistic children are language delayed or non-verbal, as was Brenda Kirkland’s daughter, Billiejean, who has been involved with the Equine Assisted Therapy Program through Mississippi State University. Billiejean entered the program about four years ago when she was six years old. Brenda was looking for anything that would help her daughter, who was diagnosed at about age two. Billiejean’s language development seemed normal until it reversed when she was about one, and she also had other classic symptoms of autism. After four years of speech therapy, her speech was limited to rare one-word utterances.  Billiejean’s first complete sentence was just before her second horseback lesson when she realized she was going to ride again and said with great excitement, “I  ride a horse!”
Many autistic children have poor motor skills, both large and small motor skills. In the case of Billiejean, just hours after her first horseback lesson, she showed dramatic and amazing improvement in her handwriting. Since muscle development couldn’t have happened so quickly, Brenda attributes Billiejean’s immediate improvement to brain stimulation from the riding.

Other symptoms of autism are agitation and irritability, tantrums, and other behavior problems. Billiejean has a very happy and excited attitude about riding, and cooperates completely so as not to miss out on her riding privileges. Brenda says riding calms Billiejean on her bad days, and improvement in her attitude is clear. “It is absolutely noticeable,” she says. “She is very different after riding. She is very mellow; the movement is very soothing to her. She especially loves the trot.”

Erin Ingram at Fisherville Farms in Fisherville, TN offers riding for autistic children. While she is not a certified therapist, her lesson program accepts autistic students, and it has allowed many to blossom. She creates a steadfast routine for her autism students, and she works on many of the same skills they are learning in their school therapy programs.  Issues like gentleness, following directions, and communication are a few skills that are addressed in the riding lessons. For example, one of her horses, Rusty, is a retired police horse. He is very patient and is completely voice trained. He will not do what the child wants him to do until he hears the words to tell him, which thereby encourages communication with words and not actions.

Erin agrees that the horses bring changes in the students’ attitudes. “They are special horses, “she says. “The horses have a certain attitude and demeanor. They set the mood; they definitely have a calming effect. And they sense when they need to show calm; they seem to understand not to let an uptight or upset student make them upset, whereas a nervous non-autistic rider might upset them somewhat.”

Horse people know about the special bond that often exists between horse and rider. Brenda feels that part of the value in the riding therapy comes from developing a connection with another being. “Obviously there are many physical components to the therapy,” she says, “but there is also some element of connection to the animal.”  In many cases, this bonding seems to be developmentally valuable because students who were previously emotionally isolated became more open to people and relationships.

Using special horses is not the only key to success for riding programs for the autistic, or for therapeutic riding programs in general. Brenda says, “You CAN’T do it without volunteers.  Depending on the rider’s disability, you often need four people per horse and rider. One person leads, another two people are on each side, and one person is behind. And while all volunteers are helpful in many ways, horse people are especially valuable because they understand the horses and how to handle them.”

Mary Shannon, Director of the Therapeutic Riding Program at Mississippi State University Extension , can be reached at 662-325-3350. Erin Ingram can be reached at Fisherville Farms, 901-308-7433

Riding on the Autism Spectrum: How Horses Open New Door for Children with ASD, by Claudine Pelletier-Milet

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