Therapeutic Horseback Riding and Autism: A Review of the Literature

Etiology and treatment of autism are understood in various ways.  An encouraging area of clinical inquiry is the use of horses in autism intervention.  This review of the literature will focus on what improvements have been noted, and to what these improvements are attributed.

There is widespread agreement that autism is a pervasive developmental disorder, showing deficient social and communication skills, narrow interest, repetitive behaviors, motor, cognitive and sensation irregularities (Taylor, et al., 2009).  Suggested etiology includes biomechanical and neural abnormalities: an extreme male brain (Baron-Cohen, 2003), impairment in global coherence (Jolliffe & Varon-Cohen, 2000), a malfunction of the endogenous opiate system (White & White, 1987), abnormalities in the subcortical magnocellular visual pathway (McCleery, 2006), and a primitive pattern of thinking, seeing and responding (Grandin, 1997; Humphrey, 1998).

Therapeutic horseback riding (Equine Facilitated Learning, or hippotherapy) involves facilitated encounters between an autistic child and a horse.  Benefits noted include improvements in communication and social interaction  (Brown, 2011), toileting and non-verbal behavior  (Parker-Pope, 2009), increased volition  (Taylor, et al., 2009), fewer tantrums  and increased capacity for self-regulation  (Friedman, 2009).  Autistic children have shown improvement in sensory, social motivation, and attention behaviors (Bass, Duchowny, & Llabre).

These benefits are suspected to be due to the horse’s tendency to act as an emotional mirror for the autistic child and to carry out simple commands from the child (Brown, 2011); the impact of rhythm and balance on an autistic brain (Parker-Pope, 2009), similarities in thinking and emotion between autistics and animals (Grandin, 1997), and less social pressure from communication with horses than with people (Friedman, 2009).

These are some astounding results.  Therefore, with further research, especially in controlled studies, there may be hope to help this dreaded disorder be somewhat contained in a more simplistic approach.  The therapy is used throughout America and has also been taken to England and to Bosnia-Herzogovina, where research results have demonstrated cross-cultural applicability  (Memishevikj & Hodzhikj, 2010).  There is currently no known cure for autism, and treatment options for improvement are not successful with every child. Parents are searching for additional options that may hold out hope, and this therapy, although it does not work well with every child, does hold out hope.