Treatment, training or just good fun? What horse riding can offer children with autism

Martha Henriques 16 May 2012

Martha Henriques looks at what horse riding can offer children with autism

A picturesque hilltop stable yard in County Durham, a row of mud-spattered four by fours, and opposite, a row of expectant equine heads poking over their stable doors; Brookleigh Stables is at first indistinguishable from countless other riding clubs across rural Britain. The only difference is the children.

Rather than the usual scattering of yelping jodhpur-clad kids demanding of their mothers their new riding hat with the pink bobble, the attendees at the Thursday sessions arrive in a minibus straight from the morning’s school. The children attending today’s session are from a local Education Village which has a specialist day school specifically for children with learning difficulties. The children arriving at Brookleigh today all have severe autism and here for their weekly riding lesson organised by the charity Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA).

Never having met a severely autistic person before, I wasn’t sure what to expect as we saddled up the ponies in preparation for their session. After watching the episode on autism of Louis Theroux’s documentary series Extreme Love, I was slightly apprehensive that the children might scream incessantly or refuse to cooperate with the volunteers. Wondering how this behaviour would fit in with riding even the most docile of riding-school ponies was more than a little nerve-wracking. Loud, often uncontrollable and sometimes violent behaviour isn’t uncommon in severely autistic children, but I wasn’t prepared for how these kids would react to their riding lesson.

Instead of the wild tantrums I had envisaged, I was met with a busload of well-behaved primary school children neatly filing off their bus, and confidently taking the hand of the nearest volunteer. While some of the children were evidently having difficulty staying focused on the task, the majority took to their volunteers – and to their ponies – in a competent and routine manner. These kids seemed to know exactly what they were doing.

Josephine, a girl of about eight whom I assisted during the session, seemed bright and happy, steadily giggling throughout most of the session with occasional bursts of laughter as if someone had just cracked the best joke imaginable. It’s commonly known that autism is a spectrum, but it was striking how even at the severe end of the scale the condition could produce such different behaviour from the frightened screaming I’d half-expected before meeting these children.

The Instructor of the Brookleigh RDA group, Elaine Wood, spoke to me about the huge influence that the riding lessons can have on the children. Wood told me of one autistic boy, Kevin, who improved so much over his lessons that he was eventually able to go on a riding holiday with his parents. “He just gained so much. He learned about grooming the horses, about taking care of them, and he had a lot of fun. He interacted with the other children that were there, they had barbeques and they sang around the campfire! It was amazing.”

While Kevin’s story is something all the RDA volunteers at Brookleigh are proud of, it’s rare to see such a dramatic change in behaviour and there are often other problems standing in the way. Wood emphasised that the “biggest challenge is remembering the children struggle to process information. We use a lot of words it can be very confusing for them. An awful lot of them don’t want to hold the reins, so issues like safety and balance are very important. Getting something back from the children is quite difficult – we don’t get much back from them.”

Horse riding is thought to benefit autistic children in a number of neurological and psychological ways, including increasing spatial awareness and balance skills. Although the causes of autism are not well understood, studies on identical twins where one or both children develop autism have suggested that environmental factors play a substantial role in the condition. It is not known whether physical and social activities like horse riding help by directly intervening with the environmental causes or whether they simply help to alleviate the difficult behavioural symptoms of the condition.

Either way, the benefits are immediately evident in many children with autism. Those who show little engagement with the outside world are often at their most aware and attentive during riding lessons, and the effects last well beyond the end of the session. “The teachers say after the kids have been riding they are far more receptive for the rest of the day and they just seem generally calmer,” says Wood.

It’s all too easy to project the emotions we expect to find in children without autism onto those with autism, but it’s important to keep in mind that these children may well think in a very different way and enjoy very different activities. But if basic behaviour like laughter, eye contact, and efforts to talk to other people around them is anything to go by, the kids at RDA certainly seemed to be having fun.

The names of children in this article have been changed.

Martha Henriques