The benefits of animal companionship have been appreciated as far back as we have records through human history. Across every nation, race and culture animals permeate our lifestyles. And while there has always been illness and disease, lifelong nervous system disorders such as Autism are on a shocking incline. According to the CDC, rates have risen from 1 in 166 in 2002, to 1 in 59 in 2018. And while we have not yet pinpointed the exact cause, we are making leaps and bounds in supportive interventions and therapies. Equine therapy is quickly becoming recognized as an effective method of improving the autistic person’s quality of life.
Autism is a disorder that is increasing in incidence far faster than we are gaining understanding of it’s cause. What we do know about it thus far is that it drastically affects the person’s interactions with and perceptions of the world around him/her. Many other nervous system dysfunctions may also come alongside this disorder, such as Sensory Processing Disorder, Anxiety and learning disabilities; Calling for treatment modalities that utilize methods other than the typical “therapy room couch”. Let’s explore how and why equine therapy is proving to be so effective as well as look at some of the setbacks.
A therapy session with a horse can be easily tailored to meet the needs of each individual child and their particular struggles. A session might look something like the following:
To address problems with sensory touch, the therapist (as well as you) might guide the child to brush the horses hair, help “wash” the horse, etc.
Autistic children often find it difficult to follow instruction. To aid in this the therapist might engage the child in “saddling up” the horse. Putting blankets on the back, buckling the cinch or something as simple as placing the reins in the correct place.
Communication remains one of the key struggles in Autism. For this, the therapy session might be centered around communicating with the horse. Even those of us not on the autism spectrum often find it much easier to communicate with animals rather than humans. We feel free to display our emotions and feelings towards animals with no worry of what will be returned. The fear of rejection or worry around how we are perceived is not even a thought with animals. And while autistic children are not usually able to verbalize these feelings, we can certainly see how they play a role in the child’s willingness and ability to communicate.
If your child is high functioning, or as therapy progresses, more complex tasks can be incorporated into the sessions. This might look something like guiding the horse to complete a specific set of tasks or the child completing the tasks while directing the horse. There is room for the therapy to be tailored regardless of where your child lands on the spectrum.
Horses are surprisingly intelligent and intuitive of human feelings. Any loving horse owner can attest to this. And the horses that are used in therapy for children are usually older, calm and attentive. Unlike dogs and other commonly used therapy animals, horses are not easily distracted. They do not mind standing still for long periods of time while someone tugs on their mane, rubs their belly or plays in their vicinity while they get accustomed to the animal. They allow a child who might not readily be at ease initially to slowly work on their comfort level. This characteristic of horses is what I personally believe is the most beneficial part of therapy that horses bring to the table, and it is unique to them.
I am an RN and personally struggle with Sensory Processing Disorder and Anxiety. I also have a son with the same diagnosis. My first horses name was “Garth”. He was actually my sister’s horse, but in my mind he was mine. I spent hours on his back, under his belly and playing alongside him as a child. He helped me overcome so much. Dirt, specifically dusty dirt on my hands was one of the sensations that caused an immediate reaction from me. But I LOVED him, so I bathed him regularly and would even wear gloves at times when brushing him after he rolled in the dirt. And, while this didn’t take away my body’s response to this stimuli, it did help me learn to cope with it because I was motivated. It was not going to stop me from being with my horse. I was also terrified of needles (think, vagal and pass out). This sweet boy stood quietly while I took my time drawing up his antibiotics and injecting him. Doing this over and over was monumental in me becoming a nurse. I learned how to mitigate my response to needles. And he was beyond patient with me. We have not had horses since my son was small, but our near future holds the hope of having a horse of our own so that he may benefit similarly.
Equine therapy will not likely be cheap. Not much associated with horses is! But the benefits are incredible and well worth every second and dime spent. There are also non-profit organizations that offer assistance, a quick google search will show you many avenues. An excellent link to the entire equine world can be found through the download of an app called Equine United. I pray the awareness of the benefits of equine therapy, as well as affordable access is recognized widely in our future.
Contributed by: Kim Walker, RN BSN IBCLC