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Thursday, August 18, 2011

Therapeutic riding for autism

Therapeutic riding puts autistic youth in saddle of life | Life | Chron.com - Houston Chronicle

The special-needs teacher ambles into the classroom to meet another new student. She's walked to the ramp where the boy waits countless times before. Each time, she's there to make a fresh connection with someone for whom connections don't always come easily.

The teacher is a 20-year-old quarter horse named Scarlet. The student is a 5-year-old boy, Paul, who has autism. He's my son.

Paul, who loves hugs and kisses, is learning to read and can count to 100. He adores animals, especially horses. Any time he goes to a petting zoo, he lights up just being near them.

But Paul also compulsively flaps his hands or wiggles his fingers. Standing still is tough for him; he'd rather jump in place. He speaks at a 3-year-old's level and often repeats a question rather than answer it. He has poor fine-motor skills. He watches other children but doesn't join them. When he does, it's with roughhousing that's often too rough — he doesn't know another way to play. Paul doesn't have friends.

For me, the worry nearly every mother experiences about her child being accepted and loved is magnified tenfold. In searching for something Paul could feel a part of, I discovered a group that brings horses and people with disabilities together. I found hope in SIRE, a nonprofit that operates three therapeutic equestrian centers for children and adults in greater Houston.

For the past seven years, a red-dirt corral at Sienna Stables near Missouri City has served as Scarlet's classroom. The 15-hands-tall chestnut is one of dozens of horses that work with SIRE, which offers riding instruction to both the mentally and physically disabled.

"She really does care about her riders. She knows who's on her back," says Joelle Devlin, who has been with SIRE for 18 years. "She turns her ears back to check on her rider. … She stops if her rider gets off balance."

Balance is an important element of therapeutic riding, or hippotherapy. Devlin explains that the side-to-side motion of a horse's gait promotes body awareness and addresses vestibular, or inner ear, issues. She touts the improved muscle tone and concentration that come with therapeutic riding. She describes how perfect alignment and posture on horseback stimulate the entire central nervous system, which in turn promotes "motor planning" in the brain. In my son's autistic brain.




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