How Horses
Help Those
With Autism

29 April 2019

We find out how horses are improving the lives of children and families living with ASD...

Horses can put a smile on our face when their personalities show through, and riding out in the fresh air and grooming can be an absolute joy for equestrians the world over.


Interactions with horses can also help those who face hardship in their lives. A recent report by the University of Edinburgh found that hippotherapy - the use of horse-riding as a therapeutic or rehabilitative treatment - significantly reduces the severity of symptoms and hyperactivity in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). After a study involving more than 20 children aged 6-9, researchers found that horse-riding had a positive impact on social functioning and reduced hyperactivity.


As April is World Autism Month, we approached Nature’s Edge Therapy Center in Wisconsin, USA to find out how horses are being used to improve the lives of children and families living with ASD.

The horses play
a unique role in
therapy sessions

Nature’s Edge, founded in 2001, provides rehabilitation services on a 65-acre ranch in a peaceful location in north-western Wisconsin.

Licensed and credentialed therapists provide conventional speech, occupational and physical therapy integrated with innovative strategies such as hippotherapy, animal-assisted therapy and horticulture therapy to accelerate rehabilitation for functional living. 


The peaceful natural setting, talents and affections of 26 therapy animals who live at Nature’s Edge, and gardens, forest trails, river, pond and hills of the ranch are incorporated into practical, comprehensive therapy goals that target functional outcomes for patients with disabilities.


The clinic and its focus on animal-assisted therapy was the brainchild of Becky Payne, Nature’s Edge’s Speech-Language Pathologist and director. An avid horsewoman herself, she had previously invited patients to her ranch and noted an improvement in speech-language interactions when they were outdoors and around the animals.


How horses help

Patients with autism may receive treatment at Nature’s Edge through outpatient therapy and through its intensive therapy program — whether for ongoing treatment or for occasional treatment for short periods of time.


“Hippotherapy is used at Nature’s Edge as an integrated treatment strategy for speech, occupational and physical therapy,” says Nature’s Edge’s Sherry Borstad.


“While hippotherapy is beneficial for many disorders, it is appropriate especially for children and young people with autism and/or Asperger’s Syndrome.


“In a therapy session that uses hippotherapy as a strategy, the patient is engaged in activities on the horse that are enjoyable and challenging. The speech, occupational or physical therapist addresses specific functional goals by utilising different positions for the patient such as sitting or laying forward, backward or sideways, standing in the stirrups, or riding without using hands.


“The patient may also be asked to stretch, reach or play games while on the horse. The therapist continuously analyses the patient’s response and adjusts the horse’s movement accordingly for optimum treatment benefits.”


Benefits of incorporating hippotherapy include the foundational applications which come from the horse’s movement.


The structure of the horse’s pelvis, similar to the human pelvis, transfers the variable, rhythmic and repetitive movement of the walking or trotting horse directly to the patient, challenging and improving postural control.


“Research has shown that the patient receives at least 100 impulses per minute from a horse at a steady walk,” Sherry adds.


“That movement also stimulates the neural activity of the patient’s body, alerting and increasing respiration and attention.


“Decreased postural control is often displayed in patients with autism which impacts both fine and gross motor abilities and planning and execution of motor sequencing.


“Decreased postural control also contributes to difficulties in language and communication, social engagement and play.  Improvements in postural control through hippotherapy can increase functional abilities and participation in daily activities.”


Success stories

The results have been astounding since Day 1. The first ever patient at the clinic’s intensive therapy centre, Diane’s House, was a 10-year-old girl called Alexis, who had been diagnosed with autism at four years old. This young girl was nonverbal and needed help with basic daily activities.  She also had sensory issues and difficulty in social situations, combined with the fears for her safety. 


During her week at Diane’s House she received speech, occupational, and physical therapy integrated with activities such as music, art, and time outdoors and with treatment strategies including hippotherapy, horticulture therapy and animal-assisted therapy.


She grew in confidence to try things she wasn’t previously willing to try at home, making significant progress in speech and matters such as sleeping patterns. Her parents were staggered by the progress Alexis made at Diane’s House, saying it gave them “new hope”.


“This kind of therapy has every opportunity to address the patient through a complete and integrated method,” says Sherry.


“We strongly believe that the integrative approach employed at Nature’s Edge not only makes therapy on our ranch unique, but it also invests patients and families with functional skills and strategies for increased independence and integration well beyond those provided by traditional programs.


“Success is to see skills learned in therapy carry over into everyday living.  Success is to see a patient develop in independence and integration in spheres of living including homelife, academic settings and community.”


The therapy herd

The horses used in hippotherapy and equine-assisted therapy at Nature’s Edge are specially selected and trained. Each horse must demonstrate a steady and engaging temperament and execute the three gaits (walk, trot, canter) with proficiency in a collected and forward-moving manner. 


The therapy herd consists of three Paints (Bacardi, Boomer and Callie), one Quarter Horse (Misty), two Icelandics (Svali and Gymir), two Gypsy Vanners (Simba and Chloe), one Fjord (Valebu) and one Miniature (Pride). 


The well-being of the horses is very important, with Nature’s Edge surpassing animal wellness guidelines. All therapy horses retire at Nature’s Edge and live out their lives on its 65-acre ranch. 


“Only sound, healthy and well-trained horses can be considered for hippotherapy,” Sherry says. “The Nature’s Edge herd represents a variety of breeds, sizes and builds which enable us to match each patient with a horse appropriate in terms of size, pace, gait and character. 


“All are prepared for their unique role in therapy sessions and are guided by professional horse handlers which optimises safety and effectiveness.”


Undoubtedly hippotherapy is proving an important tool for assisting those with autism and their families the world over.

“We have had the pleasure of witnessing in numerous encounters that therapy at Nature’s Edge — using the movement of the horse, interaction with nature and our animals, and the homelike setting of the ranch — dramatically accelerates each patient’s progress in acquiring or solidifying vital skills,” Sherry says.


“We’ve had the privilege of hearing first words and seeing first steps and celebrating many firsts in daily living skills.


"We see the smiles and first hand hear the reports of how interactions with our horses and our other animals change directions and open new opportunities for rehabilitation and achievement.”


Follow the FEI on Facebook for more great stories from the equestrian world…


Words by Richard Mulligan

Images courtesy of Nature’s Edge


Manage your cookies