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  • Jody B. Miller

How Horseback Riding Helps Autistic Kids

Updated: Nov 15, 2023

When my son Christopher was 6, I enrolled him in horseback riding lessons at a very cool stable in Mill Valley, CA, not far from the ocean. His instructor was so kind and spoke slowly and softly to Chris. The calmness caught his attention. It was a respite from a world of sensor overload.

Chris's job was to brush the horse, help with the tacking of the horse, riding the horse, talking to the horse and petting the horse. Even though Chris primarily spoke in vowels, his horse seemed to understand.

When Chris walked up the horse would lean his head over the rail and down toward Chris. It was as though he was asking Chris to pet him. He was saying hello!

I had read how riding horses helps challenges kids - especially if they have some or complete autistic characteristics, and Chris was all that and more.

During his lessons, I learned about the vestibular and proprioceptive benefits of riding horses. Those benefits helped a child feel more secure in their body and be able to manage the chaos of the world around them - a world that for you and me didn't seem this way.

I came across this therapists explanation of the benefits of horseback riding and wanted to share it with you.

By the way, Chris is now 28. He is the only one who among his peers who can make his horse walk backwards..

Horseback Riding Helps Autistic Kids

Chris walking his horse

Here is an excerpt from the video presentation.

How Horse Riding Therapy Helps Children With Autism, Dyspraxia, ADHD And Other Learning Difficulties

I feel very lucky that, as a social worker and therapist, I can work with my horses to help the people who come here. This is flora and my name is Sandra and we worked with all sorts of children and adults too.

Some have additional needs due to autism or dyspraxia or ADHD, for example. Today, Connor - and I want to show you some of the things I do here - to support young children to help them at the difficulties with communication, behavior, emotional or social problems, or physical and developmental challenges.

They work mostly outdoors one-to-one or in small groups. This is an environment where children are less likely to be overloaded, the sensory triggers, and it helps them to focus on the tasks given to them, and all these natural textures and smells can help greatly with sensory processing difficulties.

[ Music ]. This gave me a hostage. Thank you. We always get the horse ready for riding together. Flora is part of the team, and a relationship has to be built between her and the child. Many children who come here struggle with their motor skills and are prescribed exercises by brushing the horse, opening and closing buckles and straps and putting the riding tack on they are exercising these skills.

Naturally, without even realizing, and there's always lots to talk about great for practicing words: What's next, right? Is it kana? We must do all these things.

So why working together as a team to get the horse ready? It's great for social learning like helping each other and sharing a job. What what do I need? Kana this again?

Sometimes Connor rides on his own, but sometimes we write together. This is called back riding and it's a way of staying really close with lots of communication without needing to be face-to-face.

It gives children more space to process things at their own speed and take their time to respond.

They would find that much more difficult face-to-face and many children find being held tightly hugely calming.

Children usually love being carried by the horse, astonishingly riding triggers around a hundred joint movements in a rider. These movements stimulate the neuromuscular system, which helps children to develop a sense of balance and space and how to move body and limbs accurately.

Setting the horse is a huge motivator to help the rider achieve the aim of the activity.

Physiotherapy and occupational therapy exercises can often be adapted quite easily with horseback activities. I often encourage children to get involved in safely instructing the horse to move this way.

They learn about the effects they can have on others, important learning for children on the autism spectrum, for example. They often struggle to imagine what others think and do and feel and why it is always fascinating to see the child's pleasure and surprise when he says giddy up to the horse for the first time and the horse starts moving. It's a great way to boost a child's self-confidence.

We all know how much some children struggled at the conventional school setting. It involves so much sitting still and listening, but scientific evidence now shows that movement and cognition are powerfully connected.

Many of us learn better when moving around, especially young children. Horseback riding offers this movement naturally, but also contains the rider because he's in a saddle. This way, it helps them focus on the activity.

A lot of children who come here suffer from stress from a side effect of autism. Movement can be a first step to reduce the stress being carried by a horse - feeling the warmth and softness of the animal and being in a calm outdoor space.

All that combined can lead to a much more relaxed state of mind where learning becomes possible again. No one can learn anything when they're stressed.

Recent research now proves that contact with horses triggers a hormonal process in people which reduces stress and enhances well-being.

For example, some children just want to go fast. So here this can be safely done, when back riding with a child and the bouncing often brings outbursts of giggles.

As you can imagine, this is really interesting and rewarding work. I know it looks like a lot of fun and it is, but there's a great deal of theory and study behind what I do too. I work to help take big steps forward in their development, making their lives a little easier.

I feel proud that my team of carefully trained horses - and i could help them. Do look for therapeutic riding services in your area...

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