Written by Dr Fiona Dann MSc Chiropratic, BSc Hons, and validated by biomechanics world authority Dr Jonathan Howat DC, DICS, FICS, FCC (cranio), FCC (paeds), FBCA, the review explains why the pioneering equine therapy being carried out by Lilias Ahmeira, an autism expert and the founder of Somerset based equine therapy centre Special Horses for Special Children, has been consistently successful. It conclusively explains why cantering can help classically non-communicative autistic and neurologically damaged children not only to acquire the power of speech, but also to retain and to continually improve their language skills.
"Until now nobody has looked at how the biomechanical movement of a horse effects the brain of its rider," said Lilias 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."
Lilias uses a technique known as double riding as part of her equine therapy with autistic children. This involves a highly 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 three to four 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," said Lilias.
Commenting on the paper, Dr Fiona Dann said: "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."
Dr Dann added that this explains why the equine therapy experienced by autistic children at Special Horses for Special Children 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.
Examples of these changes have been documented in a number of autistic cases including four year old Toby Foxwell from Southampton. His family have reported significant improvements in Toby's behaviour, attitude and speech after each visit. Cathy, his mother, has noted that Toby now makes eye contact, waves and says 'bye' to his family, and is noticeably calmer for three to four days after a visit to Special Horses. His vocabulary has improved and he makes far more attempts to make sounds. Lilias said: "Parents typically notice an improvement in speech around 48 hours after a visit to Special Horses."
Another autistic child benefiting from Special Horses is six year old Kai Osborne, from Crewkerne in Somerset. His family have noticed distinct changes in Kai after every visit, such as a significant decrease in his obsession with his X-Box, fewer temper tantrums and generally being calmer and more social.
Lilias Ahmeira is very excited about the results of Dr Dann's research and said: "The research bears out both my theories and practical experience in working with autistic and neurologically damaged or emotionally unbalanced children. I didn't know why my treatment was working, all I knew was that my work was so consistently successful that there had to be a good medical explanation behind it."