How Therapy Horses Help Kids with Autism
On a recent Saturday morning, you could find 9-year-old Giovanni Nicholas astride Magnus, a brown horse with a white blaze and a pleasant nature. Giovanni smiled as he rode around the indoor arena, not caring that this was actually therapy. Giovanni is on the autism spectrum. He has found his condition improving, thanks to Therapeutic Horseback Riding, a new tool in the therapeutic toolkit for kids like him.
“I think that with the movement of the horse, and sitting on the horse, it’s making neurological connections, helping areas of the brain that control the balance,” said Lisa, Giovanni’s mother. “He’s now able to sit up straight on his horse, and he’s walking a lot straighter.”
The Nicholas’ are not alone in seeing the benefits of riding. They are just some of the clients of Therapeutic Riding and Off-Track Rehabilitation. T.R.O.T.R., based in Woodland, CA near Sacramento, specializes in the therapy.
“The children that we help have a variety of issues,” said Shannon Johnson, Executive Director for T.R.O.T.R. “I know quite a few of the kids I work with are on the autism spectrum.”
The benefits of therapeutic riding are seen by parents and instructors, and studies are helping to identify the scope of the improvements (see infographic). Researchers and advocates theorize that the combination of physical and mental stimulation, and the immersive environment inherent in riding, plays a role.
The operation differs from a normal stable in many ways. For one, instructors and staff are in close contact with the riders to protect them. And the environment is shaped to suit the needs of riders.
For example, T.R.O.T.R. recently underwent upgrades including a new softer riding surface, a ramp to help load kids onto the horses, and equipment to maintain the arena, funded by a grant won in the State Farm’s Neighborhood Assist program.
For some kids, these improvements are critical – larger children would be unable to mount their horses without the assistance of the ramp, for example.
But the effort pays off.
“It’s nothing but joy when you bring the kids out here and put them on the horses,” said John Bolden, president of Board of Directors of T.R.O.T.R. “The smiles come over their faces and they light up. That’s what it’s all about.”