The use of animals in medical therapy is not new. For years, scientists have encouraged the bonds that can be created between a patient and an animal and have recognized the power those bonds hold in healing a patient. Recently, the use of horses has been used to increase the development of individuals diagnosed with autism. Although it is not a cure for autism, equine therapy has dramatically increased independence, communication, and self-confidence in the autistic individual.
Autism is considered to be a developmental disorder affecting the brain. It is often characterized by difficulty in social interaction and communication. Children who struggle with autism often struggle with relating to other people. Classic autism is typically diagnosed between the ages of 18 – 24 months. Childhood Development Disorder is autism that is diagnosed after normal childhood development for the first 2 to 4 years of life. There is no clear cause of autism. Because it often runs in families, some believe the cause may be genetic. Others believe environmental factors, other medical issues, or even childhood vaccines may cause the developmental delays. Although there is not a cure for autism, early detection and education can often increase their quality of life.
Symptoms of Autism
Children who suffer with autism can exhibit any of a wide range of symptoms. Because of this, autism is actually considered to be a spectrum disorder which children may be diagnosed with any disorder along the spectrum that shares similar symptoms. Some of those symptoms include:
- Delay in speech or communication.
- Repetitive behaviors
- Struggling with concentration and attention span
- Difficulty with social interactions and social skills
- Trouble making and keeping eye contact
- Lack of social or imaginative play
- Adherence to rituals and routines
Understanding Equine Therapy
Equine, or horse, therapy is simply regular physical therapy with a horse. It is monitored under a physician’s supervision and is usually included as a component of an overall therapeutic program. It is typically more in depth than a riding therapy program that is more recreational in nature. The purpose of equine therapy is to provide specific therapeutic outcomes for the patients involved. Using the natural gait of the horse, therapists will help patients achieve specific results by riding the horse in different ways. Because the horse moves the patient’s body in a variety of ways, patients can receive the equivalent of several physical therapy sessions in one riding session. Equine therapy can generally be useful for the following areas:
- Building muscle strength
- Developing communication and socialization
- Gaining self confidence
- Gaining self control
- Improving coordination of fine motor skills
- Increasing balance
- Increasing hand/eye coordination
Combining Autism and Equine Therapy
Autistic children struggle to understand how their senses and their bodies work in relation to the world around them. They have difficulty with communicating and functioning fluidly. Putting an autistic child on a horse allows them to accept sensations from the movements of the horse and apply those sensations to their own body’s movements; allowing them to understand how their body works in relation to outside forces. They often become excited and work to communicate with their therapist to repeat sensations or learn new ones. This benefit usually comes after a number of sessions though. Introducing an autistic child to equine therapy can be a scary process. It is a change in their routine and something that may be completely out of their comfort zone.
Equine therapy offers autistic children a greater sense of self-confidence and independence. They learn how to interact with and care for the horse they are riding, giving them responsibility over something other than themselves. As the relationship is built between child and horse, that can spill over the strengthening relationships with teachers, family members, and other individuals. These children have the ability to accomplish wonderful things; they simply need to take the time to build their self-confidence, increase their independence, and trust the world around them. Participation in equine therapy helps them to accomplish just that.