Boy meets Hippo....Hippotherapy that is!

It’s no secret that the Hallmark channel is my go-to for weekend entertainment, much to my husband’s chagrin. So, it may be not as ironic as I first thought that a movie with a subplot about a horse farm, was playing on the TV as I sat down to write. I have spent the last day researching Equine Therapy or Hippotherapy for autistics. All the information that I read, supported, something that I found to be very apparent when talking to other ASD parents, and that is, that horse back riding is endlessly beneficial for our kids. Also, the complete freedom and joy that was written across Remy’s face when he simply rode a horse for all of 3 minutes at the Faire, told me all we needed to know when we decided to get him riding lessons.

Remy’s journey, in relation to autism, has been a bit unique, as it is his language impairment that effects his day to day. Since he doesn’t understand receptive language, unless it has been specifically taught to him over and over, this adversely impacts his ability to connect with peers and his general social communication. On a side note, it will be ‘interesting” (for lack of a better word) to see Remy’s social communication as he learns more and more language and is better able to utilize that language in his relationships.

There are many certified therapeutic programs, as well as different therapeutic models, across the country to cater to the various challenges that autistic children can face. Sorting through the different modalities and programs can be a daunting process even with the help of the internet search engines but it is well worth the search. In all, Remy simply needed a riding instructor who was local and who had a background in working with special needs children, specifically those with receptive language delays.

Last year, when I was telling a co-worker, and now friend, about his experience at the faire and our wish to have him have a connection with horses, early in life, to provide an outlet for himself down the road—She told me about a local farm where her child took therapeutic lessons and how much it helped him in many areas. At the time, I had intended on giving them a call, but life got in the way and it never happened. When this fall rolled around, my husband and I decided to give it another go and contacted the same friend. She arranged for us to; meet her at the horse barn to meet several instructors, show us “the ropes”, and hopefully set up some lessons for the future for Remy.

The day we had arranged to go was awful weather, but we endeavored to persevere anyhow. We trudged through the mud to the indoor riding ring and as soon as we crossed the threshold, Remy’s face absolutely lit up. He said “horse” and pointed to the numerous horses that were involved in lessons and then ran over to the fence that surrounded the ring. We explained to Remy that we were there to “watch” and not to ride, as we were waiting to meet a particular instructor who was teaching a lesson. We knew this was going to be difficult for him, but it’s a learning experience. He would frequently say “Remy’s turn” and we simply said “not this time, we are just watching.” Eventually, Remy would say “Just Watching,” so it was a big success on the the learning front as well.

Remy’s patience paid off as once we were able to meet this particular instructor, it turned out that her next lesson, cancelled and she offered to teach an impromptu lesson! Our friend’s son even let him borrow his helmet so he was set to go. She took him over to the horse stalls to get a horse and showed him how to brush the horse and put a saddle on him, but to be honest, Remy was not really paying attention as he was so excited that he was trying to jump up on the horse bareback. He had an amazing time and learned the basics of how to make the horse “go”. Since the first impromptu lesson, he has continued with lessons weekly and is learning more and more with each lesson.

When I set out to research riding beyond my personal opinion, while there were benefits that I never thought of, none of them surprised me. There were countless websites with the ‘Top X” number of riding benefits, each with their own spin depending on their audience. I intended to simply detail the benefits for an autistic person, but realized how misguided that would be. One thing that I have come to embrace over the past few months is that we need to focus on our individual child and not a diagnosis, regardless of what it is. There are many reasons that anyone can benefit from horseback riding, many of which have been explained in detail by many in the industry, I am simply going to list the benefits and provide the resources to educate beyond that.

The Top 15 Benefits of Horseback Riding and Hippotherapy

  1. Physical Health in including; core strength, muscle tone and strength and aerobic exercise/ calorie burning

  2. Posture

  3. Balance and Co-ordination, including eye-hand coordination

  4. Psychological Health: The British Horse Society did a multi-disciplinary study on the benefits of riding.You can read the whole study here.

  5. Positive Character Traits: Patience, discipline, self-control, compassion, dedication, understanding and empathy

  6. Problem Solving

  7. Companionship

  8. Socialization

  9. Relaxation

  10. Improved fine and gross motor control

  11. Improved concentration

  12. Responsibility building

  13. Gaining self-control

  14. Gaining self-confidence

  15. Improving Concentration

I derived the list from several sources but found the follow links to be the most helpful and they cover each benefit above:

If I was asked “Corinne, what is the 1 extra-curricular activity that you recommend for a child?” It would be horseback riding, hands down. That is not to say that other activities aren’t incredibly important and useful for a child, as there are plenty! It’s just the horseback riding provides benefits that are so well rounded that any child can benefit from its skill building, physical fitness and emotional support. I look forward to Remy learning and growing in his riding lessons and connection with the animals throughout his childhood. The instructor asked me what our goals for Remy’s riding and I sort of snickered internally. My goals are irrelevant as it’s not about me or my husband, it’s about Remy. So, I don’t care if he is a jumper or barrel racer or dressage etc.. and until he can express if he wants to learn a specialty and a goal to shoot for, I am perfectly fine with him walking in a circle for a half an hour if that is what he wants. Then again, how would he know all the cool things one can do on a horse if he doesn’t experience it? Thankfully, we seemingly found the right person for Remy, who is willing teach him skills but go at his pace and not push him to a finish line dictated but someone other that himself.

Every child has different strengths and weaknesses and this is especially true for autistic children. Remy’s needs are specific to him and our instructor satisfies those needs, but other children may be in need of certified therapeutic riding programs and instructors. If you want to learn more about therapeutic horseback riding and certified programs please check out the PATH website.