Farm Ireland

Tuesday 20 February 2018

Unique therapy uses horses to help autistic children

Calvert Trust carries out Horse Boy methods to better communication and empower youngsters

Caitriona Murphy

Caitriona Murphy

The idea of using animals as therapy for people suffering from illness or disability has been around for quite a while now. Guide dogs are an established mainstream aid for people with vision impairment, hearing dogs can alert their owners to sounds and danger signals, while some dogs can detect impending seizures in humans.

Horses, too, are being used in both physical and emotional therapy. Organisations in Ireland like Riding for the Disabled (RDA), the Festina Lente centre in Bray and the HEALS (Horse Energy Alleviates Living Scars) programme in Kildare, among others.

In recent years, interest in the field of equine-assisted therapy has grown hugely and there is a huge hunger for knowledge about different therapies in Ireland.

Two weeks ago, a crowd of Irish people attended a workshop on disability awareness and therapeutic riding by Henrietta Carew from the Calvert Trust in England. The workshop addressed general issues on disability but there was a strong emphasis on working with children and adults on the autistic spectrum. The course was particularly aimed at helping those working or living with people on the autistic spectrum, for example, parents, therapeutic helpers and riding instructors.

With centres in the Lake District, Exmoor and Kielder Park in England, the Calvert Trust is designed to enable people with disabilities to achieve their potential through the challenge of outdoor adventure in the countryside.

Course participants and their families can take part in very physical activities such as sailing, canoeing, climbing, archery, rope balancing, trail walking and hand-crank biking, as well as horseback riding and trap driving.

Henrietta, also known as Henri, is the stable manager at the Calvert Trust's Lake District centre in Cumbria. She is qualified as a British Horse Society (BHS) instructor, Riding for the Disabled instructor and has 10 years' experience working with children and adults of varying disabilities through the Calvert Trust.

"You can see immediately the effect that interacting with a horse has on our guests at the Calvert Trust," says Henri.

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"They get to spend time with the horses -- not just riding but grooming, watching the farrier, the dentist, all the things that they might not get to see or do in, for example, a one-hour RDA session," she explains.

"They can learn how to groom the horse or how to massage it. Depending on their ability, some will do the RDA exams or BHS progressive riding tests," she says.

More recently, Henri has trained in the Horse Boy Method, a system developed by journalist Rupert Isaacson after his son Rowan was diagnosed with autism and went through a dramatic transformation through interaction with horses. (See panel for Rowan's story.)

The Horse Boy Method includes different types of interaction with a horse, many of which were used by Rupert and Rowan. None of the activities are guaranteed as a cure for autism and, as with any activity involving horses, are taken at the participant's risk.


The first method is where an adult and child ride together, sometimes bareback but often in a western-style saddle. The child sits in front of the adult, a position that lends itself to working with autistic children because it allows a combination of:

•deep pressure by holding the child;

•speaking into the child's ear, not face-to-face, which can often agitate the child;

•the rocking motion of the horse, which apparently opens up the learning receptors in the brain.

The combination of all three creates an optimum environment for the child to receive and retain information, according to Rupert Isaacson.

Sensory work

The Horse Boy Method also includes sensory work, as many children on the autistic spectrum benefit from sensory therapies.

Smaller children often love to spend extended periods of time lying full length on the horse's back, Rupert says. Children are comforted and will often stop stimming -- the term given to repetitive stereotypic behaviour.

Several helpers are required to stabilise the child on the horse and the longer the time spent on the horse, the better, according to Rupert. He says the benefits of direct skin to skin contact with the moving horse are enormous. The physical sensation is both calming and engaging, while the rocking motion of the horse's body apparently causes the child's learning receptors to open and causes the body to produce oxytocin, the feel good hormone.

Rupert demonstrated some of this sensory work at Henri's Cork workshop with rider Shellie Murtagh, pictured above.

Academic work

As time went on, Rupert used the time he and Rowan spent on the horse to take advantage of the fact that the child's learning receptors have been engaged by the motion of the horse.

When Rowan needed to learn fractions, Rupert would talk about riding halfway round a pen, then a quarter way round, three-quarters and so on. After a week, Rowan started telling his father to go half or three-quarters way round and within a month he was adding and subtracting fractions on paper.

Another simple method is to use the letters of the arena to learn about animals, countries, colours and much more.


Teaching a horse to perform tricks in response to a one syllable command can encourage a child who is reluctant to speak, or on the cusp of becoming verbal, to take that extra step.

Horses can be taught to smile, bow, lay down, jambette (presenting a front leg and work on a pedestal on command. Even some high school dressage movements such as levade, passage, piaffe and Spanish walk can be taught as tricks.

The ability to command the horse to do something gives the child a great sense of empowerment.

The trainer, parent or sibling can discretely cue the horse from the side and reinforce the one syllable command. Usually the autistic child will watch and see the tricks happen a few times before giving the verbal cue themselves.

"Once they do, and they get a massive pay off in terms of the response of the horse, it can encourage them to try verbal commands in other situations like saying 'juice please mommy'," explains Rupert.

Henri demonstrated how easy it was to teach a cob from Kathleen O'Shaughnessy's Millicksbridge Equestrian Centre how to bow using a piece of carrot at the workshop.

At the Calvert Trust, she uses a combination of Horse Boy Methods, including these tricks, to work with guests, depending on their disability and what they enjoy.

The Lake District centre has 10 horses, mainly cobs, and a donkey to work with and the guests can ride or drive the horses.

"It is amazing what a huge effect working with a horse can have on people," she says. "There is huge interest in the area of equine therapy and it is an exciting time. At the moment, equestrian therapies are not mainstream but over time we hope that will change.

"Hopefully the workshop, which is part of the Calvert Trust Outreach Programme, will raise awareness of the benefits of working with horses for people with disabilities."

The last word must go to one of the workshop participants who said: "I loved today ... being in close contact with the animals, looking forward to being able to ride in the future. I feel today that nothing is impossible after seeing the stories and pictures."

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