Equine Therapy Resources: Horse Riding For Special Needs Children With Asperger’s & Autism

Equine Therapy for Children with Asperger’s and Autism

Both Asperger’s and Autism are sub-categories of a larger disorder category called Pervasive Developmental Disorders. They have similar characteristics, which are milder in Asperger’s, and include both verbal and non-verbal communication impairments, hyper-focus on one or two specific areas of interest, clumsiness, and repetitive speech patterns.

Typical treatment programs for Asperger’s and autism focus on behavior modification and improvement. The complexity of the behaviors is gradually increased in an attempt to help the person continue developing. Medication is sometimes prescribed to people with Asperger’s or autism, but only to control symptoms like hyperactivity or seizures. There’s currently no known cure for either disorder.

Research into animal assisted therapy is fairly new. However, even among professionals who believe more research is in order, there’s a general consensus that therapy animals can be a highly beneficial addition to treatment programs for children with autism or Asperger’s.

Equine assisted therapy seems to have the best results. The rhythmic motion of riding a horse causes the kids to focus on the movement – which is slow, deliberate, and relaxing. The child indirectly learns how to focus better, which is aided by the calming effect of riding. Some equine therapy ranches have a policy of letting the horse pick the child, rather than “assigning” the child and horse to each other. It’s a unique method that has had excellent results. A staff person will lead a child to a horse, and watch for the horse’s reaction. If the horse dips his head or nuzzles the child, it’s an indication that a bond is being formed and the child has been “chosen”.

In addition to the movement experienced when riding the horse, tactile senses are stimulated. The horse’s skin is fuzzy, the mane and tail are rough, and the nose is soft. Discovery of these sensations often helps draw a child out, stimulating development of his or her verbal communication and interest in other physical objects.

Motor skills are also developed as the child learns to ride, and eventually groom and tack. Equine therapy offers a safe, secure environment where a therapist or other staff person will be close at hand as new skills are learned. These new skills, and the child’s continued improvement upon them, increase her self-confidence, which increases her desire and willingness to learn skills at home and/or at school. Learning is no longer scary, but fun, interesting and rewarding.

A child’s ability to interact socially is often improved as well. The therapy sessions teach the child how to interact with the counselor and staff people. Group sessions allow the child to work and play with other children and counselors, learn how to handle relational conflict, and how to help others. Counselors who have consistently included equine-assisted therapy in their development programs for autistic children always have stories to tell of the dramatic improvements they see in the children. Not only are basic communication and motor skills improved, but many children experience improvements in their overall moods. Children who before experienced angry outbursts or who rarely smiled are suddenly calmer and smile more readily and frequently.

As with other types of animal-assisted therapy, the introduction of the animal seems to calm and soothe children. The playful nature of animals seems to draw autistic children out of their “shells”. Children who start to isolate themselves have become more open as a result of equine-assisted therapy. Often, they begin making eye contact with the animal first, then with other people. Soon after that, the child often becomes more relationally open; again, with the animal first, then with people.

More Resources For Families With Children With Special Needs: If you have a resource that is not listed here but would be helpful to other families, please let us know!

The Communication Matrix 

The Oregon Health and Science University has developed a free assessment tool for parents and professionals that is “designed to pinpoint exactly how an individual is communicating and to provide a framework for determining logical communication goals.”    For more information or to utilize the communication matrix visit www.communicationmatrix.org

The Jean Baton Swindells Resource Center for Children and Families 

connects families, caregivers, and friends of children with disabilities to resources, information, and training specific to disabilities and conditions. They provide information on educational, recreational, therapies, and other day-to-day issues.  Services are free of charge to families.   Families and caregivers visit or contact Swindells Center seeking answers to many of the questions that surface in their everyday lives. Swindells Center is a program of Providence Child Center.
Their Portland location is open Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., for drop-in visits. They are also available by appointment on Fridays. They also have satellite locations in Hood River, Redmond, Toledo, and Medford.   All Swindells Center staff provide support and resources by phone and e-mail at [email protected].  Visit their website for more information:

Oregon R.I.S.E. Center

is a statewide organization that encourages, educates, and empowers children and young adults with disabilities, their parents, family members, and professionals to collaboratively achieve unlimited success.  Formerly known as OrPTI, the statewide parent training and information program, which serves parents of children and youth experiencing disability, as well as the professionals who serve them, the R.I.S.E. Center offers resources free of charge to families.  Some of the services they provide are IEP, Transition and Mediation Partner Training and Matching, training on a variety of topics related to children and youth with disabilities, collaborates with the Swindells Center in the lending library, special education help-line, monthly e-mail list of training in Oregon, information and referral, statewide conferences, a blog with news of interest.  See their website for more information:  http://www.orpti.org/index.html


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Disability is Natural 

is a website created in 2001 by Kathie Snow that promotes positive attitudes and perceptions about disability.  The mission of Disability is Natural is to encourage new ways of thinking about developmental disabilities. The belief that our attitudes drive our actions and changes in our attitudes and actions can help create a society where all children and adults with developmental disabilities have opportunities to live the lives of their dreams, included in all areas of life.  For more information visit http://www.disabilityisnatural.com

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