Horse Therapy Helping Kids on the Autism Spectrum

A new study conducted by researchers at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus shines a scientific light on something that many people have felt for a long time -humans and horses have a special bond and horses can help humans dealing with a variety of medical and physical conditions. The study looked specifically at how therapeutic horse back riding  can help children on the autism spectrum.

photo caption: Rich Trotter on Beau at the Colorado Therapeutic Riding Center/Photo credit – Maeve Conran.

 

Rich Trotter is on the spectrum and he has been riding horses at the Colorado Therapeutic Riding Center for the last 10 years.

The 10th grader at Niwot High School prefers to ride Beau even though he can be a bit nippy. “Sometimes he tends be nippy about the girth.”  The fact that Rich can now ride Beau independently is a phenomenal achievement says his mother Jen Trotter.

“When he was about 4 we started having some people noticing there were some issues with him, specifically for low tone, which is (when) the muscles aren’t strong enough, he’s overly flexible, doesn’t have a strong core that kind of thing, balance is an issue.”

Jen researched several different types of therapies for Rich and was introduced to therapeutic horseback riding when Rich was four as part of an occupational therapy program. He has been riding ever since. There are lots of different things going on physically when you ride a horse that can help kids like Rich that tend to have low muscle tone. “Sitting on a horse…the movement on a horse really works your core muscles, it works your legs, keeping your arms up to hold the reigns, all that works on core strength and body strength.”

Michelle Bruhn, the Executive Director of the Colorado Therapeutic Riding Center, which works with people of all ages and of all physical abilities, says there are so many social and emotional benefits of horse riding for children on the autism spectrum.

“Maybe someone who has low self esteem, or their confidence isn’t that high – once you start working with a horse, they’re sitting on top of a horse now. For a lot of times this is the first time these kids are the tallest ones in the room, you see smiles all day long. You just start to see people’s well being, they’re changing internally and it starts affecting all areas of their life – socially, in school, at work, at home.”

Jen Trotter says they’ve also seen a positive effect on Rich’s studies since he’s been riding. She says Rich used to struggle with course work, especially writing, and had behavioral issues in elementary school. He is now in three honors classes, band and choir, and earned both an academic and band letter last year.

Robin Gabriels is a Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Colorado and a clinical psychologist at Children’s Hospital. She was also a lead researcher in the study that found that therapeutic horseback riding (THR) has immediate and long-term benefits for children like Rich diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.

“The types of things that they’re doing, this is a sensory social experience, it’s very motivating. Being on the horse and having to constantly adjust your physical movements to maintain a balance on the horse keeps them focused and attentive, not only in mind but in body…they’re socially motivated to engage with their horse and the handlers, the volunteer handlers and work as a team.”

Some other findings of the study show reductions in irritability in the children.

Read the entire study here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Robin Gabriels is a Professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado and she’s a clinical psychologist at Children’s Hospital. She was also a lead researcher in a study that found that therapeutic horseback riding (THR) has immediate and long-term benefits for children like Rich diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.