Horses Can Be Therapists Too!

The bond between humans and animals has existed from the beginning of time.  People seem to intrinsically know the benefit that animals can provide in bringing us joy, comfort or companionship, or teaching us patience or how to take care of something we love.  Studies have shown the benefits of interactions with a pet, especially for children with autism in gaining social skills, life skills, and language skills.  But children and adults with autism can also benefit from interacting with animals in conjunction with other forms of therapy and without having to own the animal as a pet.

Animal Assisted Intervention (AAI) or Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) can take many forms and use a variety of different animals.  The most commonly used animals in AAT are dogs and horses.   Best practices in AAT involve a credentialed treatment provider who plans the intentional interaction with the animal to achieve specific goals as identified in the individual’s treatment plan.  AAT often augments other approaches such as physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech/language pathology and mental health support.  It has been proven effective in a wide array of settings, for a variety of conditions and with a wide range of age groups.  For example, AAT can be used in concert with physical therapy to assist with muscle tone and fine motor skills.  Another example is using AAT with mental health therapy to help to reduce anxiety or to help form relationships.  AAT has also been utilized for veterans in the treatment of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), for cancer patients, amputees, and individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities including autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

When a horse is used in therapy it is often referred to as Equine Assisted Therapy (EAT).  Most people think of riding a horse as the only form of equine therapy, however EAT can be provided in several ways, depending on the needs of the client, the credentialed practitioners involved and the individual’s treatment plan.  The Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International PATH International states that Equine-Assisted Activities and Therapies can include mounted and ground activities, grooming and stable management, shows, parades, demonstrations, and equine therapies.  Six types are described below with a short description of each:

Equine-Facilitated Psychotherapy (EFP) is therapy with a horse in which the licensed mental health professional works with a credentialed equine therapist to address the mental health goals of the client.

Equine-Facilitated Learning (EFL) activities are those activities with a horse designed to teach critical life and communication skills.  Interactions with the horse such as learning to care for the horse, to groom it or to take care of its environment can be educational, facilitate personal growth, and develop important life skills.  It even has the potential to build self-esteem and a good work ethic, through repeated focused attention to the task.

Hippotherapy according to the American Hippotherapy Association Inc. (AHA Inc.) is therapy utilizing horse movement as a treatment strategy to address impairments, functional limitations and disabilities in patients with neuromotor or sensory dysfunction.  This integrated treatment strategy is used by physical therapists, occupational therapists and speech/language pathologists to achieve the treatment goals of the patient.  Hippotherapy has been shown to improve muscle tone, balance, posture, coordination, motor development as well as emotional well-being.  To find more information on Hippotherapy or to locate a facility near you that offers this therapy visit the AHA Inc.

Interactive Vaulting is an Equine Assisted Activity in which the student performs movements on or around the horse.  These can be very simple movements such as learning to sit and balance on the horse and can move into more complex movements such as mounting, kneeling or standing.

Therapeutic Driving offers students with physical, mental, sensory or emotional disabilities the rewards of interaction and control of a horse or pony while driving from a carriage seat or in their own wheelchair in a carriage modified to accommodate their wheelchair.

Therapeutic Riding is described by PATH International as an equine-assisted activity for the purpose of contributing positively to the cognitive, physical, emotional and social well-being of individuals with special needs.  This therapy is appropriate for less involved (physically, mentally) clients who want the social aspect of a sport along with strengthening, or as an adjunct to therapy for someone already receiving physical therapy, occupational therapy or sensory therapy.  Click here to locate a PATH International center offering EAT near you.

Although research has not kept up with this innovative and growing field of treatment, reports of positive outcomes for children with ASD using Equine-Assisted Activities and Therapies have been documented, such as increased ability to focus/pay attention (Bass, Duchowny, and Llabre, 2008), acquisition of social skills and progress with communication both verbal and nonverbal (Macauley (2007).  More recent research (2011) conducted by Kern, Fletcher, et. al. suggests that therapeutic riding provides benefits to children with ASD.  Some of the improvements noted in the study include sensory, attention and quality of life.  Finally, Equine-Assisted Activities/Therapies offer children with autism an opportunity to work on skills independently or as part of a group, to learn to care for another living creature, or to practice a sport all with the patient attentiveness of the horse as a therapy partner.

Mary Pelich, M.S.
Mary is the mother of four, including a 13-year-old son with ASD. She is currently a consultant and trainer for the Illinois State Library’s “Targeting Autism” program, and is a member of the Board of Directors of the Autism Society of Central Illinois.  You can reach Mary by email at MPelich@ILSOS.NET



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