Equine Activities and Autism

Dr Shelley Hyman

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is associated with a number of impairments in social communication, repetitive behaviours and language development. Treatment programs have attempted to target a number of these behaviours by focusing on sensory integration interventions, relationship-based, interactive interventions, social cognitive skills training and parent-mediated approaches. Although these methods have been shown to be moderately effective, none has emerged as a superior intervention for ASD.

Recently, equine assisted activities and therapies (EAAT) have been shown to be an effect treatment option for children with ASD. This intervention consists of therapeutic horseback riding, and non-riding activities with the horse such as grooming. Bass et al. (2009) showed that children with autism that took part in the 12 week therapeutic riding program reported an improvement in social functioning, social motivation and ability to focus on tasks.

Lanning et al. (2014) examined effects of equine assisted activities as opposed to a social group with children with ASD. Those who took part in the equine assisted activities were involved in basic safety lessons such as meeting the horse, respecting the horse and putting on the helmet, grooming lessons such as brushing the horse and riding activities such as walking the horse, holding the reins and guiding the horse. Those that took part in the social groups participated in activities to improve their social skills such as improving manners, keeping eye contact, making friends etc.

Results found that children participating in both the equine and non-equine program showed an overall improvement in the quality of life domain. However those in the equine assisted program showed even more of an improvement in quality of life compared to those participating in the social skills group in terms of their general behaviour. Improvements include social functioning, physical functioning and overall mental health and behaviour. Parents even reported an improved performance at school such as paying more attention in class, keeping up with schoolwork and having better school attendance.

Overall, this study by Lanning et al. (2014) have confirmed previous studies that equine assisted activities do have a positive impact on social functioning and quality of life in children with ASD. Future studies will look into further therapeutic benefits of interactions with a horse and the mechanisms behind that interaction.


Alanna Wong


  • Bass, M. M., Duchowny, C. A., & Llabre, M. M. (2009). The effect of therapeutic riding on social functioning in children with Autism. Journal of Autism Developmental Disorders, 39, 1261-1267.
  • Lanning, B. A., Baier, M. E. M., Ivey-Hatz, J., Krenek, N., & Tubbs, J. D. (2014). Effects of equine assisted activities on autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Autism Developmental Disorders, 44, 1897-1907.


Dr Shelley Hyman

About Dr Shelley Hyman

Senior Clinical Neuropsychologist. BSc (psychol) Hons, MClinNeuropsych, PhD (Med) MAPS CCN. Founder and director of the centre that was founded in 2006.