Horseback riding program giving autistic kids voice

On a recent Saturday afternoon at Wagner Ranch in rural Arroyo Grande, Harrison Haupt squealed with delight as his weekly therapeutic riding lesson ended.

Despite not speaking, it was evident by the smile on Harrison’s face and the happy sounds coming from his mouth as he rode Rasta confidently, helmet atop his small head, the horseback-riding lessons are working for him.

Harrison, 31/2, is finding his voice in the saddle.

“It’s really, really good,” said Alison Haupt about her son participating in Little Riders, Jack’s Helping Hand’s newest therapeutic program for children with developmental and physical disabilities.

Harrison has autism spectrum disorder, a brain development impairment that hampers social interaction, communication — verbal and nonverbal — and behaviors and interest in individuals afflicted with the disorder.

Autism also causes restricted and repetitive behaviors and is the second-leading childhood developmental disorder. It is considered a spectrum disorder because the severity of impairment differs in each individual.

Harrison doesn’t use language and communicates through grunting-like noises, his mother said, adding she hopes early interventions, such as Little Riders, will help her son to begin speaking at some point in his life.

Since beginning the eight-week equine therapy program last month, Harrison has started making a throat-type noise, smiling and giggling every time he’s around the horses or knows he’s going to the ranch, Haupt said.

“He’s very excited and he looks forward to it,” she said, her own face beaming with a huge smile. “This is a whole different element for him. It’s calming for him. He just adapts.”

Haupt admitted she was skeptical when she brought Harrison to the ranch for his initial riding lesson with Lisa Ankenbrandt, who runs the Little Riders program. But, it didn’t take her long to see the benefits.

“He immediately went up and started petting the horses,” Haupt said, adding Harrison is fearful of other farm animals. “He needs this. It’s pushing your child, but it’s pushing them in a healthy way.”

Experts agree horses having a calming effect on individuals with autism, allowing them to focus, and anecdotal research shows the movement of the animal gives the person riding it rhythm, which is integral to developing speech.

Riding a horse also gives the rider trunk stability, which, in turn, helps regulate breathing, also important for speech.

San Luis Obispo mom Erin Helfman has also seen positive changes in her 5-year-old daughter, Sydney, since the young girl started lessons with Little Riders a few weeks ago. Sydney, too, has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.

“This is great for her,” Helfman said about Sydney, who wasn’t verbal until 31/2 years old. “She loves having a voice.”

Ankenbrandt has her students walk around small arenas on the horses — they also play games — giving the animal commands such as “Whoa” and “Go, horse” during the 30-minute, weekly sessions…..

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