CNN.com recently had an interesting piece on therapeutic horse riding for autistic children.
We raise and train large-breed donkeys and my son Harrison, who is now 5, has been riding them since he was 3. In fact at age 3 he rode on a three-day pack-trip into the Sangre de Cristo mountains. He was diagnosed with autism at 4.
I try to get him out riding fairly regularly when the weather is nice. This weekend he rode both days for about 45 minutes per ride (about three miles) on the trails at Bear Basin Ranch. I lead the donkey from the ground and keep a watchful eye out for any safety issues, such as wildlife, horses, or my own dog crashing out of the brush.
Reading the CNN piece renewed my interest in Harrison’s riding, and the use of donkeys in this type of therapy. Perhaps one piece to the autism puzzle has been right here under my nose all along. Donkeys seem very well suited to this type of equine therapy since their movement is virtually the same as a horse, yet their generally calmer nature makes them less scary than horses.
There is a difference between therapeutic recreational riding and hippotherapy, which is done under the guidance of a licensed therapist (speech, occupational, physical, psychologist). Still, as he rides we practice singing songs and even reciting books. Harrison has several songs memorized and can bring to voice entire kids books word and verse. While riding.
This activity is also therapeutic for a parent — actively engaging the child in an enjoyable activity while freeing yourself to walk and enjoy the outdoors.
Harrison is prone to screaming and tantrums. Both days this weekend I noticed considerable improvements in his disposition and behavior after riding.
In addition to helping with autism, getting out on the trail for some equine-assisted therapy also helps fight NDS (Nature Deficiency Syndrome), which is at least as rampant in our society as autism. We regularly point out and name the different types of trees, wildflowers and animals that we see along the way.