People along the autism spectrum present a wide variety of issues for therapeutic horse riding instructors and volunteers — and even for the horses.
“The autistic person has an inability to directly communicate their needs and interact as you and I do,” says Karen Stanley-White, executive director of the Saratoga Therapeutic Equestrian Program (STEP).
“They’re not able to organize their bodies. They are either over-stimulated or under-stimulated. The rhythmic movement of the horse stimulates the patterns in the brain and the body to help calm and teach appropriate movement.”
Autism spectrum disorder is a complex condition that affects brain development. Symptoms may include difficulty with social interaction, processing problems, communication difficulties, undesired repetitive behaviors and movement disorders.
“We have a very large percentage of clients who are somewhere on the autism spectrum,” says Christine Fitzgerald, communications director of Pegasus Therapeutic Riding. “It can be very beneficial because they’re encouraged in class to communicate with one another and communicate with their volunteers.”
In some cases, a rider works with a team of 3 volunteers who walk alongside the horse and communicate with the rider throughout the class. In this way, they reinforce the instructor’s direction. “There’s a lot of input going on,” says Fitzgerald.
Emily Wygod, an instructor with Pegasus, worked with a young client with autism who didn’t want to be there at first. “She wasn’t a fan of riding, of focusing and paying attention,” says Wygod. “She got very upset during her lesson. It was a challenge.”
Alissa would slump on the horse rather than sit up tall, says Wygod. She resisted working hard on her riding skills.
When she did try to make an effort, as soon as things got difficult, she’d get upset and give up. “In the beginning I didn’t know how to help her enjoy riding.” But Wygod stuck with her.
Today, Alissa is in one of the intermediate groups. She has great posture and position on the horse. “Her behavior has changed so much,” says Wygod. “She’s very focused. She’s happy, and she loves seeing her horse. I’ve seen such an improvement in her and in her riding skills. She’s posting. She’s riding off-lead. She doesn’t need any side walkers. When we have a new horse come into the program, I trust her to ride it. She’s really come such a long way.”
A Connection With Animals
As a child with autism, Katie Ucker had problems with muscle weakness and social interactions. But, according to her mother, Susan Neithardt, “She’s always had a connection with animals.”
So when she heard about the therapeutic riding program at Pegasus, Neithardt decided to give it a try.
“Katie’s more receptive to animals than she is to people,” says Neithardt. “I’m happy, but sometimes I’m a little bit sad because she’ll spontaneously hug the horse. She’ll give me a hug if I ask her to, but she’s more in tune with the horse’s feelings.”
According to the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH), therapeutic riding uses equine-assisted activities to improve the cognitive, physical, emotional and social well-being of people with disabilities. This includes issues with social interaction, peer relationships, behavior control, concentration, anxiety, depression, language development, self-esteem and more.
It’s hard work, but it’s also a whole lot of fun.
“Katie’s really in tune, and she’s very respectful of the horse and his emotions and how to communicate effectively with him,” says Wygod, one of Katie’s instructors and program coordinator at Pegasus. “She’s one of our most advanced riders, and she’s worked really hard at it. She has an unbelievable memory; if you tell her something about a horse, she’s going to remember it for a very long time.”
And although Katie had years of occupational therapy before she came to Pegasus, the program there gave her much more than a stronger body. “It really helped Katie learn how to follow multi-step directions and use her own body for motor planning problems. Her body awareness improved, and she learned all about the animals too,” says Neithardt.
Katie used to ride a challenging horse named Goose, according to Wygod, and was among the only riders who could handle him. “Goose was nervous at times, and Katie knew just how to calm him down. She knew the things he didn’t like, and she knew how to get the right reaction out of him. I think he was a great stepping stone for her because Goose was pretty challenging.”
Katie learned how to be an independent rider on him, says Wygod. “He’s really stubborn, so she had to be able to communicate and work with him to get the results she wanted. Now I think I can put her on almost any horse and have a lot of confidence that she will figure out the right way to work with that horse.”
Katie also participated in Horses & Me, a program at Pegasus that teaches people about horses and how to take care of them. Through activities like grooming, leading and lunging a horse, and learning about horse anatomy and first aid, Katie gained strength and coordination while working on her interactions with instructors and other participants.
At first, Katie needed 2 people called side walkers, who walk at each side of the horse, and a third person leading the horse. Today, she’s an independent rider who recently won 2 gold medals for Independent Equitation and Independent Trail in the Special Olympics.