Horseback Riding as Therapy for Children and Teens with Asperger's Syndrome

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It is important not to minimize the amount of experience and time with horses needed to use horseback riding as therapy; the goals should include creating a real and empathetic bond with at least one horse, and strengthening nonverbal communication skills with people as well as animals by practicing these skills and using them frequently in situations where these nonverbal communication skills are critical. Controlling and feeling safe with a horse entails reading the horse's nonverbal cues and behaviors, as well as responding to and directing the horse's behavior and emotional state through nonverbal cues. The rider giving these nonverbal cues must be both predictable for the horse, and responsive and sensitive to slight changes in conditions both external and internal to the horse.

The goals of horse-back riding lessons should also include learning to be a successful rider through understanding horse behavior and mastering nonverbal communication skills. Neuroscientist Debra Niehoff writes, "A good horse's mouth is as sensitive as the human ear. A good rider's hands speak with a clear, emphatic voice. Pair a responsive horse and an articulate equestrian and the ride is a conversation, the bit a telegraph, the taps, pauses and pulls, releases issued from hand to mouth a calm sequence of clearly spoken requests . . . "(1999, p. 200). It is important to choose an excellent teacher, and to talk with the teacher about the student's Asperger's syndrome beforehand, so that the teacher can plan the lessons to deal with situations appropriately and safely. Students with Asperger's may need extra help at the beginning, but many soon become devotees and horse-lovers that excel in riding because it becomes a passion for them. Instead of choosing a plan that offers only one brief hour-long lesson a week in a large class, parents should choose small or individual classes with some riding, but also with "stable privileges" such as opportunities to help groom the horses, clean stalls, and otherwise spend extra time with the horses each week. This extra time helps students with Asperger's observe and learn the non-verbal communication skills they need with the horses, and helps them to bond with the horses more deeply. Grooming the horses, brushing them, talking softly, and moving around them thoughtfully all create a level of communication and affection that offers positive reinforcement for appropriate nonverbal behavior. In addition, many stables offer a reduction in lesson fees for students willing to help with stable chores. Some residential schools and camps also offer excellent equine programs, with extra time in the stables as part of the programs.

Without interfering in the lessons in any way, parents should consider unobtrusively watching at least some of the lessons. In this way, the parents can reinforce their student's successes in learning to pay attention to nonverbal communication by noticing and complimenting any similar successes in nonverbal communication at home. Parents can also gently and positively (but never in a negative way) draw a parallel for their teen between the successes he or she is having with horses, and the successes he or she will have with other people when he or she learns to "read" the nonverbal communication in social interactions. A parent might say, "See if you can understand what your sister's behavior means when she turns away from you the same way you have learned to understand your horse. What is she saying?"

As the lessons progress, parents should monitor them from time to time to make sure that the teacher has enough information about Asperger's, and doesn't get frustrated with the student over Asperger's-related behaviors. Most good horse-back riding teachers focus a great deal of time on coaching students to understand the horse's nonverbal communication, and on how the student can communicate successfully with the horse, by developing signals that are clear, and by staying attuned to the horse's thought patterns, and the environment, even as it changes during a riding session. For example, some horses fear water and will pull up sharply when approaching a stream, and may turn to try to avoid it. Many horses are also startled by loud, unexpected noises, and may rear slightly. Learning to manage these situations through developing greater skill in communicating with the horse both gives the rider a feeling of confidence and real delight in riding, and reinforces the value of understanding and using nonverbal communication correctly.

Miss G. Edmonds, a young woman with Asperger's, and an equestrian, writes, "When I look back through photos spanning the 23 years of my life I can find many photos of me with horses and other animals appearing to be in natural harmony. I am never happier than when hacking out in the countryside, cantering across a field or just being around horses." Teenagers with Asperger's deserve such happiness; when it leads to greater confidence and happiness around people, the rewards are greater still.

References and suggested reading for adults and older teenagers:

Grandin, Temple. 2006. Thinking in Pictures, Expanded Edition: My Life with Autism. New York, New York: Vintage Books.

-and Catherine Johnson. 2005. Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior. New York, New York: Scribner.

Hill, Cherry. 1997. Horse Handling and Grooming. Pownal, Vermont: Storey Publishing.

Kotulak, Ronald. 1997. Revolutionary Discoveries of How the Mind Works. Kansas City, Kansas: Andrews McMeel Publishing.

Niehoff, Debra. 1999. The Biology of Violence. New York, New York: The Free Press.

Roberts, Monty.1997. The Man who Listens to Horses. New York, New York: Ballantine Books.

- 2000. Horse Sense for People. New York, New York: Penguin Putnam.

Scanlan, Lawrence. 1998. Wild about Horses. New York, New York: Harper Collins Publishers.

For young teens and preteens:

The Black Stallion series, and the movies

All books by Marguerite Henry, including Misty of Chincoteague, King of the Wind, Justin Morgan Had a Horse, etc.

Sewall, Anna. 1945. Black Beauty. New York, New York: Grosset and Dunlap.

Black Beauty
National Velvet
Black Stallion, and Return of the Black Stallion
The Man from Snowy River


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Using Horseback Riding as Therapy