Equine therapy can provide life changing experiences for children on the autistic spectrum
The health professionals made us feel that because Toby is autistic, there was nothing more they could do. They had written him off, whereas I felt that he had more to give – we just had to find a way to channel it.
These are the words of Cathy Foxwell, mother of six-year-old Toby who has autism. It is this “you’re on your own now” attitude, taken by some providers of healthcare services, which is compelling not only parents of autistic children, such as Cathy, but also carers and educators involved with autism to seek alternative, holistic solutions, such as equine therapy.
Although still in its infancy, equine therapy is already proving highly successful with children on the autistic spectrum. Horses have been an essential part of human life for thousands of years, yet only recently have people started to recognise that equines have a unique ability to heal. A horse is non-judgemental, giving love and respect unconditionally, and such qualities are proving increasingly important in turning around the lives of children who may otherwise be written off by society.
For people living with an autistic child, life can be challenging. Sam Pulleston, the mother of three-year-old Noah, describes life with her non-verbal, frustrated autistic child as like walking on a tightrope. “Noah has no concept of sharing or taking turns. When we asked him to get off a trampoline…he started banging his head on a post,” says Sam. “In a motorway restaurant, he decided to take all his clothes off and ran around screaming. People came up to me and complained. It was awful.”
For Sam, life didn’t get better until August 2011, when Noah began equine therapy. “In just three months, Noah, for whom conventional speech therapy had proved inappropriate, made improvements that I had dared not hope for. For the first time ever, he began to speak and consequently was less angry, he became more social, was able to concentrate and even toilet trained himself.”
Equine therapy involves a variety of techniques, but the key lies in a flexible, individual approach based on a child’s needs. It is important to monitor the child’s reaction to every new experience and never to push boundaries too far. There are various ways to involve children, starting with gentle, introductory sensory techniques, such as grooming or petting a horse, or even decorating it with paint. The use of paint is particularly effective for children who can’t bear to touch fur or skin (a common autistic trait), as the paint acts a barrier. The benefits of sensory work are profound, as it involves the use of fine motor skills, verbal communication and social interaction.
Developing communication skills
Once the child is comfortable being around a horse, they can progress to in-hand work. Walking a horse around on a rope is a tremendous confidence builder, which is particularly good for a child who may have serious self-esteem issues. It is about a horse and a child bonding and developing a partnership. The horse follows the child, with helpers on hand at all times, and is alert to both verbal command cues and body language. This is ideal for non-verbal children as it encourages them to speak, because even single words (ideal for horses to understand) produce instant results: say “Whoa” or “Halt” and the horse stops, say “Walk on” and the horse moves, or say “Up” and the horse climbs on a pedestal. The child quickly learns to reward the horse with a verbal “Good boy/girl” and to give physical praise with a pat or stroke. It is simple, but extremely effective therapy.
The biggest thrill of all, though, has to be actually riding a horse. To sit on a horse is to be a king, to be taller and braver than everyone else and to do something that other children cannot do. For a child with autism, this is about taking control and gaining confidence in leaps and bounds.
Even at standstill, there is much that can be achieved. Sitting on a bareback horse, a child can enjoy the feeling of its silky fur, stroke the coarse hair of its mane, smell its unique scent, hug its neck facing forward and then lie down on its hindquarters – a position of pure trust. Some children have even been known to fall asleep in this position.
Then, when the child is ready, it is time to start walking, with helpers on either side to provide support, as required. Just being so high on a horse and feeling its movement is an immense thrill for a child. However, many autistic children are speed merchants for whom pottering is not enough. This is where double riding – with an expert adult rider holding a small child on a specially made saddle in front of them – comes into its own. To take a child with no previous interaction with horses and allow them to experience the motions of canter can be of great benefit to autistic children, often helping them to speak for the first time in their lives.
In July 2012, the results of a clinical review commissioned by equine therapy centre Special Horses for Special Children revealed why the rhythmic motion produced by a horse in canter can help promote speech in non-verbal autistic children.
The author of the paper, Dr Fiona Dann, said that “Autistic children have a lot of tension in the base of the skull and in the membranes of the brain and this stops the essential flow of hormones such as oxytocin, which is essential for sociability. By putting an autistic child on a horse and double riding in canter, the increased sacral movement and release of tension in the cranium can lead to improved CSF (cerebrospinal fluid) circulation as well as increased oxytocin release, which in turn creates the benefits seen from increased levels of this hormone, such as greater improvements in speech, mood and focus, better fine motor skills of coordination and dexterity, and changes in a child’s concentration span and calmness.”
Although the benefits from equine therapy can often be seen in a child very quickly, it should not be regarded as a quick fix. It takes around three or four sessions of sensory work and double riding at canter in a single month to help establish the neural pathways necessary for speech. If a speech habit is not formed immediately, then a child can regress, so repetition is vital.
Lilias Ahmeira has more than ten years’ clinical experience working with autistic children and is the founder of Special Horses for Special Children, an equine therapy centre in Somerset. She is also the mother of Tom, aged 13, who is diagnosed with autism: