Communication Techniques for Low/Nonverbal Riders

One of my favorite seminars from the PATH Intl. 2014 Conference was “Dynamic Collaboration: Maximizing Communication During Therapeutic Riding,” given by Karyn Lewis Searcy, M.A. CCC-slp and Director of Crimson Center for Speech & Language, and Kaitlyn Siewert of R.E.I.N.S. Therapeutic Horsemanship Program. Their information was exactly what I’ve been needed to help me with many of my riders, so I am very excited to share my notes with you! Note these are just notes, not a perfect representation of their presentation – I only hope I do them justice!

Remember that as a TR Instructor your focus is riding skills, not speech language therapy (more about that in my post “Speech Disabilities in Therapeutic Riding”). So with Low/nonverbal riders, your goal is COMMUNICATION – not speech therapy – in order to help them become better riders, express themselves and their questions and their choices, communicate with their horse, feel heard so unwanted behaviors decrease, and therefore have a more enjoyable riding experience. I only took notes on techniques I felt applied to therapeutic riding and that I could do as an instructor that doesn’t cross the lines into speech language therapy. Not all techniques may be for all riders, it’s a toolbox. I hope you find these as helpful as I did!

Communication Techniques for Low/Nonverbal Riders


A lot of things go into effective communication:

  • Intent
  • Interaction (Pragmatic, Social Language)
  • Cognition
  • Receptive Language (Comprehension)
  • Expressive Language (Verbalization)
  • Sound Production (Articulation, Motor Planning, Strength, Voice, Resonance, Fluency)

In light of this, remember that for your low/nonverbal riders:

  • Verbal difficulties may be physical or cognitive.
  • Both result in delays in expressive communication (speaking).
  • Sometimes there will also be delays in receptive communication (understanding).
  • In the latter case it may take an extra long time to express themselves.
  • People who cannot speak can often understand what we say and even if not can understand our intent!
  • Bad behavior is a form of communication for people who can’t tell us otherwise. Finding ways for them communicate and feel heard is extremely important!

Communication Techniques

Make statements (Don’t ask questions)

  • Questions can be hard to decode for those with language difficulties.
  • Questions can be answered with a No. (“Do you want to pass the ring?” ”No!”)
  • Statements are easier for them to decode.
  • Statements are easier for us to make concise.
  • Ex) Instead of “Do you want to ride?” say “Let’s ride!”
  • Fade direct prompting into waiting for completion of phrases. Ex) “Say ‘Open Gate’!” fades into prompting “Open ______!” and waiting expectantly for completion.

Use less words

  • Shorter sentences are easier to understand and imitate.
  • Never ask a rider to do something you can’t help them with.
  • Don’t ask riders to use speech if they can’t say the words.
  • Pair a gesture or movement with words they have difficulty saying.
  • Ex) Instead of requesting “Say walk on”, request “Make your horse go!” with a gesture for “go”, then wait for imitation, if don’t, use hand over hand to help them gesture.

Provide 2 choices.

  • Instead of asking “What do you want to do?” give them choices.

Use positive language

  • Say what you WANT them to do.
  • Instead of “no kicking” say “feet in stirrups” or “feet down”.
  • Give visual connections to the words – images, props, gestures, etc.
  • Then if they learn to repeat you they’ve learned the positive thing to do!

Use Gestures

  • Gestures help understanding and provide opportunity for imitation and alternate communication.
  • Select words that are significant, specific and of immediate value (horse, gate, open, go, walk on, carrot, etc.).
  • Make up simple gestures to back up your words .
  • Incorporate signs the rider is already familiar with.
  • Synchronize syllables with gestures (match the number of syllables to the number of gestures used) – this can help them organize motor planning and imitation. Ex) “open” = “o” hands together + “pen” hands apart
  • If the rider does not respond in 5 seconds, use hand over hand to help them imitate the gesture.
  • Accept a similar gesture if it’s intentional, responding positively while providing immediate hand over hand repair of the attempt.
  • Immediate reward gestures to enhance cause and effect and meaning of gesture.

Match your energy level to that of the rider.

Use inflection

  • Helps get your verbal message across.
  • Use inflection with shorter sentences, slowing down your speech, rising and falling your voice.

Follow through

  • Consistently matching your actions to your words will help get the point across.

Move on

  • If they get stuck in an utterance pattern or you can’t understand them by the third attempt, redirect and move on. That way neither of your get frustrated.
  • Ex) Rider: “Blah” You: “What?” Rider: “Blah” You: “What?” Rider: “Blah” You: “Uh huh, wow! Look at ______”


  • Wait till the count of 5 in your head
  • Riders with expressive difficulties need time to formulate a response and motor plan how to say it.
  • Riders with receptive difficulties need time to interpret what they hear on top of that!
  • Speaking at them can compete while they are trying to think.
  • Make sure the whole team knows to wait! Often well-meaning volunteers jump in too soon.

Encourage communication in the environment

  • Create communicative temptations – ex) put a ball in the arena you know they want to play with
  • Use the silent stop or turn
  • Make sure the whole team knows to wait and give the rider processing time.
  • Do activities that engage the rider and encourage spontaneous communication, instead of just demanding they verbalize certain words.

Always add one word

  • If they can say 1 word, add another to make it 2! If 2, then 3! And so on.
  • If they can say several words, encourage whole phrases.
  • Ex) If they can say “walk” encourage “walk on”
  • Make a plan for each object/activity they like, starting with 1 word, then how you will expand it to 2 words, 3 words, etc.

Target core words

  • Core words – The presenter Karyn’s goal is independent use and retrieval of words, which requires the rider actually understand the words and how to use them. She points out a lot of times kids get stuck in imitation or not really understanding how to use words. For example, “I-want” is one word that gets him something, “cookie” is what he wants, “please” is something he has to say to get it. Instead of the usual overgeneralized “more,” “want,” and “please,” target core words based on what is important and valuable to the child and that will be useful.
  • First target one word, then add more. Ex) Child likes to feed the horse. Target the word “feed” first, then “feed horse”, then “feed horse carrots”.
  • Pair verbs with nouns, which promote more communication, and can be reused later.
  • Use carrier phrases – these are phrases that start with the same word, and can be used to learn other and longer sentences. Ex) “Open gate” can turn into “Open door.”

Use what they like to create communication opportunities

  • Identify activities or objects your rider enjoys, and how they normally acquire them, then turn it into a communicative exchange.
  • Ex) The rider likes feeding his horse, and currently expresses this by grabbing handful of carrots. Instead, place the carrots out of reach so he has to gesture or verbalize to get them. Help him discover how he can get them using what communicative acts.

Use consistent hierarchy of prompts

  • Wait = (get to gate but it’s closed, wait and see what they do)
  • Ask = “What should we do?”
  • Verbal prompt = “Open _____”
  • Add gesture = “Open _____” + gesture
  • Add hint = “Open _____” + gesture + “ga___”
  • Add modeling = “Open gate” + gesture

Don’t always demand eye contact.

  • Looking away can indicate thinking/processing/planning. How often do you look off into the distance when you’re thinking about something?

Model correct pronunciation.

  • If the rider approximates the word or uses distorted word order, accept it and model the correct way.

Use Sound Sequencing

  • Sound sequencing = “pae, pee, pie, poe, poo” etc
  • This may help riders get into the right pronunciation, if it’s a technique they are familiar with.

Use Mouth Gestures

  • Add gestures to indicate which direction your mouth/lips go: “pae” (move hands away from mouth edges) “pee” (same) “pie” (same) “poe” (move hands down from bottom lip and up from top lip) “poo” (move hands toward mouth)

Use audio/visual/tactile pacing

  • Tactile pacing = using a brief mechanical stimulation as a pacing signal, which by combining touch and sight with words can help repair communication difficulties for some people
  • Ex) Help rider tap her hand on her leg as says each word. The presenter had one rider who could not say more than one word unless they did this, then for some reason the rest came out.
  • This can also be done using audio and visual signals.
  • Download the Powerpoint for a video of this.

Use iPads

  • Many nonverbal persons have their own iPads with Touch Chat, Proloquogo, and other apps.
  • Add a horse page for things they learn at the barn. Use these pages during lessons, and encourage family/teachers/therapists to utilize them at home and school.
  • Take pictures and add video of them riding!
  • Choice Board or Soundingboard apps allow you to make pages with two choices using pictures that rider can tap to communicate – for example to ride in the “arena” or on the “trail”
  • There are new apps every week, keep an eye out (and let us know if you find a good one!).
  • Ideally the rider will phase out of using the iPad as they gain gestures and words. So every time they use the iPad follow it up by demonstrating the word and gesture you’d like them to use.

Use Visual aids

  • Charts
  • Images
  • Visual schedules (see handout) – can Velcro on and off when accomplished
  • Choice board – put choices and pictures on board for them to choose from
  • Social stories (see handout)
  • Anything else that helps communication!
  • See the Powerpoint for some pictures of these.



Note: This is not professional advice, this is a blog. I am not liable for what you do with or how you use this information. The activities explained in this blog may not be fit for every rider, riding instructor, or riding center depending on their current condition and resources. Use your best personal judgement!

4 thoughts on “Communication Techniques for Low/Nonverbal Riders

  1. Make sure to desensitize your horses to any communication tools you introduce before mounting your rider! Light-tech aids like communication boards and pictures can flap in the wind and are often laminated with shiny laminate. High-tech aids, whether they belong to the rider, the instructor, or the facility, are often speech-generating devices and they talk! Consider what might happen if someone forgets to turn down the volume before entering the barn/arena.
    Also, if trying to put together a barn-specific communication system, don’t forget to inquire about your rider’s level of symbolic development. Some individuals “get” communication but don’t “get” symbols – you might need to consider systems using actual objects, miniature objects, pieces of objects, or photographs rather than picture symbols.

  2. Also something to be aware of when giving oral-language choices to riders. Riders who are otherwise neurotypical might benefit from a verbal choice as a model to help them increase their language skills. But for riders with concomitant cognitive delays and especially for riders who are on the autism spectrum, pay attention to whether there is a pattern in which choice the rider takes. Many people who have tendencies toward echolalia (repeating part of something they hear, particularly the end part) will almost always pick the second choice you give!

    • Thanks for this great reminder! I appreciate the comments you are giving, they are very insightful and great additions.

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