Horseback riding helps autistic students improve verbal, social skills



For the past seven weeks, a group of preschool students from Iowa-Maple School have boarded a bus and made the 40-minute drive to the Fieldstone Farm Therapeutic Riding Center in Chagrin Falls. 

Once there, they get familiar with their surroundings by playing educational games and having a snack. Then they put on their riding helmets and mount a horse with the assistance from the Fieldstone volunteers.  

Their teacher, Barrie Sandman, an early intervention specialist at Iowa-Maple, called Fieldstone to see if her students, who have autism and are developmentally delayed, could participate in the program.   

Sandman says her 4- and 5-year-old students are very athletic, and she finds physical education is important when teaching the whole child.  

“We have a lot of speech deficits, a few behavioral and social issues,” said Sandman. “So with many of the activities we try to develop their socialization. And riding horses is beneficial.” 

At first the students were hesitant to get on the horses, but Sandman said that by the second week, they grew comfortable being on the animal. By the third week, they were trotting on the horse and the fourth they went on a trail ride.  

“My approach to teaching kids is they are kids first and their disability is second,” Sandman said. “When I see them on these horses, they are typical 4-year-olds who are riding horses. It is remarkable.”  

She has even seen a noticeable difference in the students’ demeanor. “Their confidence has increased a lot,” she said. “They are braver.”   

The students are communicating with the horses.  “They have to tap the horse and say, ‘Go.’ And they have to make different sounds to make the horse cooperate with them, which they seem to be doing really well.” 

Sandman said the children’s verbal skills have also improved.   

“They are talking to the people who are helping, and they are answering questions,” she said. “It is not in the way a typical 4-year-old would do it, but they are pointing, and they are making sounds and they are expressing what they need when they are on the horse.”  

A 2018 study by researchers at the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Medical Campus found that therapeutic horse riding led to a reduction in irritability and other positive social and communication impacts on children with autism.  

Sandman said this seven-week experience will stay with these students for a long time.  

The students’ participation was made  possible through a $1,300 scholarship from Fieldstone and through support from Iowa-Maple’s principal, Natalie Smith Benson. The principal came up with the remaining $375 and the cost of bus transportation, Sandman said.

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