This weeks www.theadditionalneedsblogfather.com blog post is from a guest blogger, Nicky Ellis from ‘Horses and Foals‘ https://horsesandfoals.com who writes about how horse riding therapy can help Autistic children…

Autism is a neurological diversity that can affect how a child develops.  An Autistic child can find it difficult to engage in good quality social interaction or to communicate freely with other people.  Some Autistic children prefer to use alternative means of communication to speech, such as symbols or signing; other Autistic children may be able to speak fluently.  Some Autistic children can be supported to live relatively ‘everyday’ lives, while others will need a lifetime of specialist support.  There are ways to help children and their families understand Autism better and there are some positive therapies that can help with development although it is better to start as early as possible.

Some of the more popular and proven therapies include occupational therapy, speech and language therapy, learning about social skills, hippotherapy, and activities such as swimming.  A parent must identify the best therapy to help in their child’s development and their child must enjoy and involve themselves in these therapies for them to be helpful.

Hippotherapy is a form of therapy with the help of a horse.  Hippo is taken from the Greek word, which means horse.  This horse-assisted therapy is also known as Equine Therapy.  Horse riding is a form of occupational, speech and language, and physical therapy.  The therapist uses the horse’s movement to develop neurological and physical functioning and it also improves the posture of the child.  Horses have an amazingly positive and empathic power.  When the horse and an Autistic child start interacting, they will eventually build a special bond with each other.

Hippotherapy is a great fun-filled exercise for Autistic children. It supports some of the key development areas for a child with Autism such as communication skills, motor skills, sensory skills, and social skills.  An Autistic child may have low confidence because of the difficulties experienced through their condition, and also because of how they are treated by other people, including children, around them.  It is important to build confidence in them through therapies such as hippotherapy.  Once they are enabled to understand that they can do many things just like everyone else it will help to boost their confidence.  Equine Therapy can help build that confidence.

The primary concern for a horse is if there is any potential danger.  Once they know they are in a safe environment they are very comfortable.  Horses are curious animals and they express their thoughts through their behavior and body language.  Once they find a person to be trustworthy they bond with that person.  For an Autistic child, they know a horse will not judge them and this helps them feel safe and bond easily with the horse.  The therapist helps the child to interact with the horse and also uses the movement and rhythm of the horse to strategically help them achieve therapeutic goals.

The movement that a horse makes is three dimensional from front to back, side to side, and rotation.  It is similar to the movement of the human pelvis.  This movement helps a child to develop motor planning, balance their body, weight bearing, sensory regulation, and timing skills.  An Autistic child learns to see outside of themselves and learns to interact and communicate with the horse with the help of their instructor.  Along with a therapeutically certified riding instructor, there should also be an occupational and speech and language therapist present to help the child.

Autistic children may find it difficult to play with pet animals such as cats and dogs as they cannot always judge how gentle or rough they are with them.  Horses are trained to stay calm.  A professional can train a child how to pet animals.  They can help a child understand their senses of touching, petting and caring for the animal, which will provide a good opportunity to understand sensory engagement.

When a child has control over the horse and the horse responds to the child’s command, it boosts their confidence level.  An Autistic child can find it difficult to understand non-verbal cues but through equine therapy they can learn how to understand these cues better.  Horses give non-verbal cues through their body language as they obviously cannot speak.  An autistic child slowly learns to pick up these non-verbal cues.  A therapist uses this opportunity to help a child understand and interact with other people around them.  Also, this helps a child to control his or her tone of voice, body language and to give decisive cues.

After mounting on a horse, a child learns to sit upright; this requires a combination of motor skills.  The equine therapy will improve their muscle strength, flexibility and balance to stay on the horses back.  While riding, the movement of the horse needs to be controlled and the rider has to balance their body.  An Autistic child starts to understand the movements and control the reins and saddle to direct the horse.  This will help them in understanding their own body and strength required to exert motion.

The child and horse develops a bond during these sessions that can help the child in developing emotional self-awareness.  In this non-judgemental environment, the child learns to understand their own emotions.  This can eventually help in their behavior and communication skills.  They will gain confidence as they master the skill of horse riding.  They can use these skills that they acquire through the therapy in the outside world.

Before you go for equine therapy, do find out if the center has accredited and trained therapists.  A good therapist is very important for the success of this therapy.  A therapist will introduce the child to the horse and will ensure they are comfortable and alleviate any fear that they have.  Before meeting an actual horse, the therapist will introduce the child to the horse through pictures and puzzles.  Once the child feels comfortable with the horse, the child will care and love the horse as its good friend.  The child will be more comfortable to do tasks and challenges under the instructor’s guidance.

Before enrolling for equine therapy do seek professional advice from your Doctor.  Do check reviews of other parents enrolled at the center and set an objective with the therapist.  From time to time measure the child’s development and success.  Equine therapy is an expensive therapy, so do check for scholarship programs or insurance covered programmes.  If your child enjoys riding a horse it’s the best therapy you can give your child to improve their skills!

Nicky Ellis
Editor of ‘Horses and Foals’
https://horsesandfoals.com

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