The rhythmic motion of a cantering horse can help promote speech in non-verbal autistic children, new research has found. 


The results of the first biomechanical clinical review found that the rhythmic motion produced by a horse in canter actively relieves tension in the part of the brain that deals with speech and sight, unblocking crucial neural pathways and enabling a previously mute child to not only talk for the first time but also to retain and to continually improve their language skills.


Written by Dr Fiona Dann and validated by biomechanics expert Dr Jonathan Howat, the review explains why the equine therapy being carried out by Lilias Ahmeira, an autism expert and founder of Somerset-based equine therapy centre Special Horses for Special Children, has been consistently successful. 


"Until now nobody has looked at how the biomechanical movement of a horse effects the brain of its rider," said Ahmeira. "Dr Dann's paper confirms the anecdotal evidence that when children experience the canter motion, it is the speech and language cortex in the brain that is being stimulated, which is why many non-verbal children often start speaking. The review indicates that the rocking motion produced in a child's pelvis and sacrum, when cantering on horseback releases the tension in the brain's membranes, which in turn improves blood flow and function to the communication and sight areas of the brain."Ahmeira uses a technique known as double riding as part of her equine therapy with autistic children. This involves an experienced adult rider carrying a child in front of them, on a specially trained horse, fitted with a specially designed saddle, enabling the child to experience the motions of a horse in relative safety, without themselves having to learn to ride."


It takes around 3 to 4 canter sessions in a single month to help connect and establish the neural pathways necessary for speech. The first visit is the toughest as it opens up channels that a child will have never been able to fully utilise before. The second, third and fourth visits, too, are crucial because they maintain and then establish the neural pathways of communication opened in the first session. If a speech habit is not formed immediately, then the child can regress - repetition at this stage is key to longer-term progress.” 


Dr Dann added: "Autistic children have a lot of tension in the base of the skull and in the membranes of the brain and this stops the essential flow of hormones such as oxytocin, known as the love or cuddle hormone and which is essential for sociability. By putting an autistic child on a horse and double riding in canter, the increased sacral movement and release of tension in the cranium can lead to improved CSF (cerebrospinal fluid) circulation as well as increased oxytocin release, which in turn creates the benefits seen from increased levels of this hormone." 


This explains why the equine therapy overall produces greater improvements in speech, mood and focus, better fine motor skills of co-ordination and dexterity, together with changes in a child's concentration span and calmness, Dr Dann added.