The autistic child comes through the gate to the horse park holding her small fingers to her ears. Heike Reeves, physical therapist, holds the child’s book containing hook and loop fasteners yielding photos sharing what the child wants to do because she doesn’t speak. Opening a page, the child grabs a horse picture and hands it to Reeves, who takes it and asks, “are you ready to ride the horse?” A little acknowledgment with eyes and body indicate she is ready to ride.
Placed on top of Sonny, an eight-year-old Appalachia horse, the child’s lower body begins to follow the gait of the walking horse.
“The horse has the same gait as a human, neurologically speaking,” Reeves said. “When seated on a horse, the children get the hip rotation and sense of working those muscles. It is like getting a Pilates workout, as strengthening activity for a 25- to 30-minute session.
“The balance reaction makes corrections,” Reeves said. “I can’t duplicate the therapy they get on the horse. The horse modality is the same as a piece of equipment. This type of motion develops core muscle strength, balance and posture. Horseback riding also develops gross and fine motor control and promotes coordination. It helps the gross motor skills and increases body strength.”
Mentally, horseback riding increases concentration, improves sequential thought processing and develops spatial awareness. Emotionally, horseback riding provides an opportunity for riders to bond with the horse, their therapists and their volunteers. This helps develop trust and reinforces appropriate behaviors.
Socially, horseback riding nurtures a positive self-image and self-confidence; the riders often experience a form of independence for the first time in their lives when they are riding.
While the child is on the horse, her fingers immediately fall away from her ears and she begins to pay attention to the world around her.
With autism, in this case, placing fingers in her ears blocks out the surrounding noise that interferes with her awareness of what is around her. The horse movement is natural and as it takes care of her worry about movement and walking, she can observe the world around her. Many times children with autism see things in the field or beyond that they have never noticed before.
“When not on a horse, the children have sensory processing problems when all senses are bombarded and they can’t control what their body is feeling,” said Geni Cablish, occupational therapist.
“The horse helps them to organize all their senses,” Cablish said. “Things they are not able to do normally they can concentrate on other learning experiences.”
The children have two walkers on either side of the horse, as well as the person leading the horse usually Trudi Cantor, volunteer, and owner of the horses used in the program. With Reeves on one side, another volunteer or a therapist can walk on the other side and work with the children on speech or other coordination. During the therapeutic session, physical, occupational and speech therapy goals are worked on.
Our Children’s Academy in Lake Wales offers the program that the children look so forward to. The horse is the good theme for input making it a happy place for the child.
“I’ve seen kids who have gotten on horses to have never seen their surroundings before,” Cablish said.
Hippo (horse) therapy typically runs from the middle of October through May. Therapeutic riding occurs with a Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH) certified riding instructor, such as horse manager Nancy Slater (also a two-star Parelli instructor) overseeing the horse riding.
When you add a physical, occupational or speech therapist then it is called Hippo (horse) therapy.
Our Children’s leases Cantor’s horses that she brings in from 8:30 a.m. to noon every Tuesday and Thursday. Volunteers are trained on site. The school notes the progressive improvements of the children that are evident with each session on the horse and over weeks of intervention.