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Benefits of horse riding for children with autism

Sean Whiting, Director of equestrian specialist Houghton Country, explains how horse riding can benefit children with autism.

There are around 700,000 people on the autism spectrum in the UK — that’s more than 1 in 100 people. Sadly, many children who are autistic find it hard to learn in a classroom environment and struggle in school, with a staggering 34% saying the worst thing about school is being bullied. Meanwhile, 63% of parents believe their child with autism is not in the school that would be best for their learning and development (Autism).

While these stark statistics show an educational gap for children with autism, the right support and understanding can make a huge difference to their lives. One way that is becoming increasingly popular is equine-assisted activities and therapies (EEAT), a term used to describe any kind of treatment based around horses and their environment.

In this article, I’m going to explain the various types of equine therapy available to children with autism as well as the benefits they can bring.

Physical benefits

Many children with autism can experience lower coordination and strength, oftentimes with decreased muscle tone. Horse riding is a natural way to build strength and coordination as children must continuously adjust their body with the horse as it changes speed and direction. They must also stay in control of the reins across a trail, steering and stopping as required, which helps build up coordination between the two sides of the body.

There are particular exercises which therapists will incorporate into sessions to help build up skills further, such as changing position in the saddle, which can help children with autism to understand direction and how to follow sequences. Elements of equestrian vaulting can also be incorporated, including kneeling and standing on top of the horse, and this further helps their balance and motor control.

Cognitive and language benefits

For some children with autism, learning communication skills can be a struggle. There are many aspects of interacting with horses that can help improve these skills, such as following directions, touching various parts of the horse, or steering in certain directions. This environment motivates the child to listen, as the movement of the horse can be controlled by the therapist until the child responds.

There are also plenty of other opportunities for building cognitive concepts from counting and naming colours to identifying objects and sequencing steps. This helps to build links between their mind and the world, while also helping to develop natural language and speech patterns.

Sensory benefits

There are many sensory sensations that are associated with horse riding. Children with autism tend to love the stimulation that comes along with interacting with horses. Whether it’s a walk or a trot, the vestibular system — the sense organ in the ears that is responsible for balance — is gently stimulated with changes in speed and direction.

Similarly, the movement of the child’s body in relation to the horse, being pushed and pulled as the direction changes can be greatly beneficial for moving their muscles and joints, while the touch of the horses’ coat helps to stimulate the skin. There are also a whole host of sounds and smells that go alongside an equine environment, and this exploration of the various senses can be a great way to interact with children that may have been uncooperative in other therapy settings.

Emotional benefits

Some children with autism have a difficult time emotionally bonding with others, including making eye contact, communicating feelings and expressing themselves. Horses provide affection regardless of whether a child has difficulty speaking to them, and this can be incredibly encouraging. Instead of communicating verbally, children will be encouraged to brush the horse, hug its mane, and give it pats to let the horse know that it’s doing a good job.

Caring for a horse helps the child learn about the feelings of another living being. Hopefully, this bond will help the child develop social and communication skills in other areas of their life.

How to access horse riding for autistic children

Fortunately, there are now many horse riding centres across the country that specialise in working with disabled children. Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA) is a charity that helps over 25,000 disabled children and adults every year with horse-based activities. With over 500 centres across the UK, they help people of all ages with all kinds of disabilities. Find a group near you and get in touch with their fantastic team today.

As you can see, there are many benefits that horse-related therapies can bring to children with autism. If you’re looking for a great way to help your child, we highly recommend giving it a try.

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