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Horses are one of the most intelligent animals on the planet. Their ability to learn quickly and calm nature make them excellent therapy animals. This is why Qatar's Al Shaqab Equestrian Centre has developed a ground-breaking equine-assisted therapy program for children with autism.
"Autism spectrum disorder is a developmental condition found in the brain. Children with autism often behave, communicate, and interact differently from other children," explains Nouf Al Mansoor, Head of Equine at Al Shaqab.
According to Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, the abilities of children with autism can vary considerably. While some children are socially advanced, others are nonverbal. Others can function independently, while others need constant support. Children with autism begin to show signs before they are three years old and may continue to do so for the rest of their lives.
'It improves their stress levels'
Equine-assisted therapy is really beneficial for children with autism. "It improves their social interaction and motor skills and helps control their stress levels," Nouf told Scenes.
A typical therapy class begins with the students greeting their instructors and horses. The children are then helped onto the animals by an instructor. Children with autism struggle with concentration, so lessons are designed to keep them calm and focused. In addition to activities catered towards their disabilities, the children are taught general riding skills.
"The children participate in a series of games using coloured balls, softballs or coloured cards with numbers," says Ciara Rosi, an Equine-Assisted Therapy Instructor at Al Shaqab.
Practice makes perfect
"The children practise how to balance on top of the horse. They also learn how to use the reins, turn, and stop the horse. The sessions include learning how to move their bodies up and down whilst trotting," continued Ciara.
Once the riding lesson is finished, the children stand in the centre of the arena, thank their horses, and dismount.
The therapy session continues inside the stables. The young students are encouraged to walk, feed and groom the horses and create a bond with the animal.
Horses mirror your energy
Zana Foheem, Equine-Assisted Therapy Assistant at Al Shaqab, has been riding horses from a young age. She explained to Scenes, "Horses are great therapeutic animals because of their energy. They really match your energy. If you're excited, they will mirror that. If you are calm, they reflect that back to you. They get you to focus on controlling your energy," she explains.
Al Shaqab's state-of-the-art facility houses over 180 horses of different sizes and breeds. Horses used for therapeutic riding classes are chosen for their temperament and size. "We like to classify them as bomb-proof horses, horses that don't overreact to external stimuli," says Nouf. "We also look for horses that are not larger than eye level so that the grooms can see and support the students from all angles," she says.
Children with autism react to the horses in different ways. Some children fear approaching the horses, while others can't wait to get on. "We get cases where students wouldn't stop shivering or were very hyperactive. The minute they sit on the horse, everything relaxes," says Nouf.
'A rewarding feeling'
Seeing how equine-assisted therapy impacts children with autism inspires the team to continue developing their program. "When I see children making progress, it's not just a rewarding feeling but also feedback on what's working," says Nouf. "The positive effects are unmatched. I've never seen autistic children react the way they react with any other form of therapy," says Zana.
Several parents and Autism specialists regularly provide feedback to Al Shaqab about their children's progress. At first, some parents thought it would be impossible for their children to enjoy the sessions, but are soon convinced when they see positive changes in their child's behaviour.
"My main advice for parents is to get out there and register their child because this program will benefit them. I tell them their child is just as capable as any other child, and they never know what their child could get out of a session," says Nouf.
Many institutions across the country continue to raise awareness for autism and other neurological conditions. Disabilities aren't a limiting factor in Qatar, and attitudes are changing in the region.