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Horse therapy for autism

Chelsea Powrie

A Penticton horseback riding company has become a helpful ally to kids on the autism spectrum through their horse therapy programs. 

Leann Manuel founded Riding 4 Life about 10 years ago, and moved it to its current location on Penticton Indian Band land just east of the Channel four years ago. 

She has been riding with a passion since she was a kid, and studied psychology and social work in university. When she started teaching kids to ride, she found her skill set started to meld together. 

"Some of my clients were on the autism spectrum, and I ended up with more and more clients that were not neuro-typical, or had different barriers," Manuel said. "We seemed to have a knack for adapting our program for that."

Manuel now offers a range of therapeutic horse programs aimed at helping kids on the spectrum come out of their shells, learn to be calm and focus and work on their motor skills. 

"Basically, riding a horse can help train the human brain and nervous system to have better coordination, balance, and motor control," reads a description of one of their horse therapy programs on their website.

"For folks who are struggling to develop these skills in their everyday life, [the program] offers a somewhat sneaky way of providing 'treatment', especially for children who often resist other types of 'medicine,' so to speak."

Manuel said research shows riding horses can help the learning process. 

"It's showing that the movement of a horse's pelvis is rally similar to the movement of a human's pelvis, and it's that walking motion that get's the brain going and helps the children learn," she explained. 

She has seen non-verbal and extremely reticent autistic children undergo a huge change after spending time at the barn. One of her longtime instructors, Rachel, agrees. 

"I've seen a lot of kids come through who have been quiet, they haven't really talked a lot, they don't really do a lot with the horses and then one day or after a couple of days you'll start to see them get more excited," Rachel said.

"I love seeing them at the beginning, where they've come from, and where they are now, and seeing how much they've learned and how much they've recognized and asking them questions to see them actually respond to you, it's amazing."

Some of Manuel's intern teachers are on the autism spectrum themselves, and used to attend the Riding 4 Life therapeutic programs. 

"They've reached a point now that they're able to teach what they've learned," Manuel said. "The motto of our intern program is learn it, do it, teach it, so they're at the teach it part. It's a great opportunity for them to practice what they've learned and help me expand the number of people in the community I can make this available to."

Riding 4 Life still has spaces available in their therapeutic programs this summer, as well as riding lessons available for kids both on and off the autism spectrum. For more information, click here



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