Equine-assisted therapy and therapeutic riding can offer great benefits for those living with autism spectrum disorder.
Nine-year-old Gabe had never uttered a word in his life, and was diagnosed as a non-verbal child on the autism spectrum. His GallopNYC instructor, Marie, was aware that he didn’t speak, but she didn’t allow his diagnosis to limit her expectations for him. Instead, during his lesson, she asked Gabe: “Tell your horse to ‘Walk on!’” while showing him how to tap Buddy’s neck to signal him to go. Gabe’s schoolteacher spoke up to remind Marie that he wasn’t verbal. Just at that moment, Gabe said: “Walk on!” A few weeks later, at the end of his 11-week session, he patted Buddy on the neck and said, “Thanks, you’re the best.
Gabe is one of hundreds of kids with disabilities and special needs who have flourished at GallopNYC, a non-profit organization based in New York City that offers therapeutic horsemanship programs to both children and adults with disabilities. Just over half the riders are on the Autism spectrum.
The organization was founded in 2005, and since then has transformed the lives of more than 1,000 people, using therapeutic horsemanship to help them walk, talk and learn, and inspiring each one to live life as fully, productively and independently as possible. GallopNYC affects not just the lives of the kids and adults who have participated in the program, but also has an enormous impact on the staff and volunteers. How could it not when stories like Gabe’s are taking place on a regular basis?
Equine therapy for autism spectrum disorder
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and autism are both general terms for a group of complex disorders involving brain development. These disorders are characterized, in varying degrees, by difficulties with social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication, and repetitive behaviors. ASD can be associated with intellectual disability, difficulties in motor coordination and attention, and physical health issues such as sleep and gastrointestinal disturbances. Some persons with ASD excel in visual skills, music, math and art. The Center for Disease Control estimates one out of 68 children are diagnosed with autism in the United States.1 At GallopNYC, we observe that many riders with ASD exhibit high anxiety. They are overwhelmed by sensory information – light, sound, people – and withdraw or act out.
How and why would horseback riding help people with ASD? The benefits have been shown in research, such as a pilot study by RL Gabriels, JA Agnew, et al that measured the effects of therapeutic horseback riding on school-age children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorders (Research in Autism Spectrum Disorder, 6 (2012) 578-88). The how is less clear, although we know that being around horses is calming and seems to ease the anxiety of kids on the autism spectrum. Dr. Temple Grandin, a noted authority on ASD (who is herself on the spectrum), has noted the affinity people on the autism spectrum have with horses. And as much as we like research at GallopNYC, we go by what we see every day – children with ASD responding in remarkable ways to horses and riding.
Of course, much credit goes to the horses. Three of GallopNYC’s seven horses are rescues, one is a donated dressage horse, and two adorable ponies are leased from a summer camp. Dozens are rented from the barns where the program is run. These wonderful horses develop a connection with their riders that these people may have never been able to experience before, and patiently guide them towards confident and engaged learning and interaction.
If you or someone you know is on the autism spectrum, do reach out to your local therapeutic riding establishment. The volunteers and horses would be happy to see you!
Elizabeth Novogratz is freelance writer living in Brooklyn. Alicia Kershaw is Executive Director of GallopNYC and a PATH Int’l certified therapeutic riding instructor. GallopNYC.org