Equine Therapy Programs:
An ASD Parent’s Perspective
by Ula Tinsley, Autism Blogger and Parent
I always thought that there was only one model of horse therapy which just meant horseback riding. I began learning about Equine Assisted Therapy Programs after I met a group of professionals who work with autistic kids and other patients. It still amazes me, how God orchestrates my life, pushing me out of my comfort zone to meet people that I would otherwise never cross paths with. This was the case when I met my new friend Christy, who is a film producer and mom of a special needs child. She recently made a movie called Unbridled, which beautifully portrays emotional, physical, and spiritual healing through contact with rescue horses. The story is based on true events that took place at Equine Assisted Therapy centers including the Corral Riding Center in North Carolina. The movie won several awards in various film festivals and was recently screened at the EAGALA Conference in Tennessee. That is where I met all of these wonderful people who told me about their equine-assisted therapy programs. My eyes were opened, and often filled with tears, after hearing their patients’ life-changing stories.
I realized even more how blessed we are to send our son to a school that incorporates hippotherapy into their academic program- it’s a real privilege! I witnessed with my own eyes how calm Michael and his classmates were once sitting on a horse, hugging its neck, feeling the movement of the horse and its heartbeat, etc. I always thought our boy would be terrified of horses because of their size, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Then he met a horse named Cookie and fell in love from the first touch.
You see, horses are very intuitive animals and possess this shrewd sense of awareness to everything that is going on in their environment. They are extremely sensitive to the actions of humans and have a kind of supernatural ability to pick up on our nonverbal behavior. Horses are completely honest in the way they react to situations. They are particularly useful for developing social and language skills in children and adults who struggle or are unable to verbally communicate their thoughts and feelings.
I have learned that there are several different models used in Equine Assisted Therapy that offer various treatments, depending on each child’s needs. Let’s take the EAGALA model for example. They believe in a “team approach,” which means that in each session, a mental health professional and an equine specialist work together with the horses and their patients. Kids in this program practice what they call “focus on the ground,” which unlike hippotherapy, does not include horseback riding. Instead, they utilize effective and deliberate techniques, where the horses are metaphors in specific ground-based experiences. A unique aspect of the EAGALA model is that it’s solution-oriented. This means that rather than instructing or directing solutions, they allow kids to experiment, problem-solve, take risks, employ creativity, and find their own solutions that work best for them. The activities may range from simply being in the horse’s presence to asking the horse to navigate an obstacle course, etc.
There are many equine therapy centers offering programs for for kids on the spectrum or with physical impairments. I advise you to check if there is one near you, and get your child in a program as soon as possible! The healing that comes as a result is priceless.
There are 4 Different Types of Horse Therapy
Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP)
is a form of psychotherapy performed by a combined team of horse professional and mental health professional using equines. This type of equine therapy promotes and practices interaction with horses to provide emotional growth to treating individuals with emotional and mental health issues.
Equine Facilitated Learning (EFL)
focuses on the learning and educational side of treatment and includes a variety of emotional and social activities based on horse behavior. EFL acts to improve cognitive functions, including strategies to reach goals and organize behavior. Some practitioners invoke self-awareness and mindfulness skills as recovery tools for those who usually make poor choices or are under high stress.
Therapeutic Horseback Riding
helps to improve the physical, emotional and social state of a patient by performing guided riding. Those who will benefit from this treatment are children with cerebral palsy or Downs syndrome. It is considered reliable to individuals with autism and sensory integration disorder. Therapeutic riding is also effective for language development and trauma recovery in children. Riding an animal for therapy also offers physical and mental benefits to individuals who are usually refused of outdoor experiences.
Hippotherapy is a form of speech, physical and occupational therapy or treatment using a horse as a healing medium. The characteristic movements of the horse are used to carefully render sequential sensory and motor input, and improve sensory processing and neurological function of a subject. The treatment is very much unlike therapeutic horseback riding where riders learn specific riding skills. Hippotherapy relies mostly in horse movement for the treatment of people with mental or physical disabilities.
*Definitions of types of therapy were sourced from