Riders with Autism Part 2 – Preparation


As with any rider, you want to prepare your lesson and interactions to set them up for success. This includes:

  • Knowing the Precautions & Contraindications
  • Researching the Rider
  • Planning the Lesson Environment
  • Having the Right Perspective

Precautions & Contraindications

First thing it to know the precautions and contraindications for Autism from the PATH Intl Standards Manual. This will help you know what to be aware of or stop the lesson for.

  • Precaution (be aware of, could lead to contraindication)
    • Wanders off, may get lost, may hide from those searching for them. Ensure adequate supervision.
    • Self-injurious behavior
    • Poor safety awareness
    • May not respond to “no” or tone of voice.
    • Poor impulse control, may run away into dangerous area or spontaneously dismount
    • Rigid adherence to routines, may make changes difficult such as a different horse, instructor or volunteer
    • Communication deficits, may need to establish familiar communication methods before EAAT
  • Contraindication (shouldn’t ride)
    • Unable to evaluate a participant’s pain/distress level.
    • Increasing self-injurious behavior, before, during or after EAAT
    • Unmanaged aggressive behavior toward others or the horse
    • Behavioral meltdown where participant is unable to be calmed prior to EAAT, may contraindicate EAAT for the day
    • Inappropriate dress for riding or the day’s weather
    • Refusal to wear a helmet.
    • Extreme tactile defensiveness or gravitational insecurity

Research the Rider

Before interacting with any rider it’s a good idea to learn a bit about them from their paperwork and team. Riders with Autism may need some additional research for you to know their specific behaviors and how to handle them. Consider creating an additional form for new riders with Autism asking about the following, or include these questions in your intake interview. By doing a little extra research you will be able to plan your lessons better, know how to treat and touch them, and understand their motivations.

  • Gather information from:
    • Parents, family
    • Care givers, support personnel
    • IEP, SLP evaluation
    • Rider at their intake
  • Gather information about:
    • Preferences
      • Likes/dislikes (color, texture, cartoons, etc.)
      • Sensory issues (lights, touch, smell, etc.)
    • Communication (source: Lutz)
      • Types of communication & behavior management strategies used at home or school (so you can incorporate them)
      • How do parents/teachers communicate with them?
      • How do they communicate with others?
      • What augmentative tools are used?
      • What is the typical processing time for both expressive and receptive language?
      • How many words can they process at a time?
      • How many steps can they follow?
      • What kind of learners are they?
      • Do they have sensory integration issues?
      • What behaviors do they tend to exhibit when they do not understand or are not understood?
    • Behavior (source: McDowell)
      • What are their triggers for undesired behavior?
      • What are the best ways to respond to undesired behavior?
      • When is it best to hold your ground and push, or to back off?
      • Medications and recent changes in medications that may impact behavior

Lesson Environment

From your research, you shoulder be able to make appropriate decisions about the following lesson environment factors.


  • Saddle
    • English
      • if needs lots of sensory input and requires less support, because provides max feel of horse’s movement
    • Dressage
      • if needs lots of sensory input but requires more support, because provides deeper seat
    • Western
      • if needs extra support and security, because provides deep seat, and some may like the hard surface which helps establish the limits of their body
    • Surcingle and pad
      • if needs lots of sensory input and extra input through alternative riding positions, if needs to develop core strength and improve posture and balance, if needs extra input and closeness to horse to help with high or low tone, if needs a more challenging experience
    • Grab strap
      • use if poor balance, anxious, or fearful
  • Reins
    • choose type depending on rider’s texture and color preference
  • Other
    • Fidget items
    • Seat saver – if texture sensitivities


  • Small
    • so rider can take in the whole space and establish markers
  • Enclosed
    • in case the rider spontaneously dismounts, if the arena is well enclosed the rider can run around it to help understand the space before returning to the horse
  • Consistent
    • Keep the set up the same at first. Many riders with Autism have an incredible memory for detail and are afraid of or bothered by change. Consistency helps create security through predictability, and helps the rider become aware of their position in relation to each object.
    • Later deliberately change things.
    • However, some say that the more you change it up in the beginning the less likely you’ll have a meltdown when you need to change it.


  • Offers opportunities for learning and sensory input
  • Include forests, trees, sensory objects like branches and pine cones

Right Perspective

Your attitude has a huge impact on the child and family’s experience.

Based on Part 1’s theories, individuals with autism need:

  • to engage in leisure activity with other children
  • to explore on their own
  • to accept challenges
  • to experience different sensations
  • to feel emotions

The instructor meets these needs by

  • Treat them as individuals
    • “A child should not be seen as either ‘normal’ or ‘handicapped.’ Each child is unique and pursues his own special way.” (Pelletier-Milet, p. 119)
    • “We are navigating without radar. But what is clear to me is that these children have the need – like all other children – to be recognized, appreciated, and helped by other people so that they have a chance of putting themselves together and living a reasonable life. They are extremely sensitive to relationships and must therefore be treated as individual human beings and not as some object that must be reeducated. Delving down into their inner most recesses, discovering the early moment when things went haywire and going forward from that point is a delicate undertaking…” (Pelletier-Milet, p.168)
  • Meet them where they are at
    • “What is easy for us is almost certainly difficult for them, so I have made of point of putting aside all my preconceptions, and I try to discover everything that might be of help to them.” (Pelletier-Milet)
    • “What matters to me is what the children themselves get across to me. It is they who show me the road to save them from their problems,” (Pelletier-Milet, p.166)
    • “I watch like a hawk to see what interests him: the slightest flicker of interest shows me the way to go…” (Pelletier-Milet, p. 167)
    • Be sensitive
    • Trust your instincts
  • Then take them with you
    • “As for me, I enter his strange world and share with him the adventure of learning to feel… I share his laughter…we bond, and this bonding is a necessary part in his efforts to rebuild himself, have rational thoughts, and display emotions when he needs do. Whereas formerly the only emotion they have allowed themselves is anxiety, there are not wonderful sensations to be enjoyed, like the rocking of the pony that reminds them of the time when all was still well, and the pleasurable adventures of friendship, laughter, and love.” (Pelletier-Milet)
  • Create a fresh start
    • Set the scene for a fresh start. According to Pelletier-Milet, the rocking of the horse brings them back to to a point in their life similar to before being born, which enables them to rebuild their “psychic body envelope at their own pace and in their own way. Some will make steps toward being sociable and physical, others will progress enough to enjoy a full and rewarding life.”

The parents/caregivers

  • Include them
    • Pelletier-Milet includes them on trail rides, a whole procession into the woods. She also includes the parent as a sidewalker to help transfer the child’s bond with the pony to the parent.
  • And/or let them step back
    • Give them the opportunity to step back and let them have a fresh start.
    • You watch their child without judgment, which allows them a fresh perspective.
    • They should feel safe to step back at distance to watch their child progress and let him experiment on his own.
    • The distance also helps them take a balanced view of the past. (So provide a good viewing area!)
  • Support and respect them
    • “The parents have to be supported, given helpful advice, and occasionally revived when the job overwhelms them.” (Pelletier-Milet)
    • Be compassionate and sympathetic. Have respect for them and what they have gone through. They have seen more specialists than you can imagine. Use the horse to bring them hope.
    • Once they develop confidence in you, you can share their fears, worries, achievements, and look to the future together.
    • Help parents to make friends with other parents, so they can support each other. Have a community viewing area. Teach in groups to bring them together.

Do you have anything to add?

Up next: Lesson Planning, Progression, and Strategies!

Sources (for this whole series)

  1. AspergerExperts.com. “Sensory Funnel.”
  2. Baker, Jed. No More Meltdowns: Positive Strategies for Managing and Preventing Out-Of-Control Behavior.
  3. Firth, Uta. Autism: Explaining the Enigma. Second Edition 2003. Backwell Publishing, MA.
  4. Gabriels, R.L., Psy.D. “NSC Positive Behavior Management Strategies.” Handout. Based on Growing up with Autism: Working with School-age Children and Adolescents. 2007.
  5. Grandin, Temple, Ph.D. “Teaching Tips for Children and Adults with Autism.”Indiana Resource Center for Autism. December 2002. http://www.iidc.indiana.edu/?pageId=601
  6. LaBrecque, Dr. Karolina. “INTEGRATING EAAT INTO DIFFERENT THERAPEUTIC APPROACHES IN AUTISM.” 2014 PATH Intl Conference 2014.www.thehealinghorses.com
  7. Lutz, Susan. “Communication Strategies, Development, and Tools for Participants.” 2012 PATH Region 5 Conference handout.
  8. McDowell, Susan, M.S. “TOOLS from the AUTISM SPECTRUM DISORDERS SURVIVAL KIT.” 2013 Seminar Notes.
  9. O’Connor, Keith and Busacca, Anthony. “Behind the Behavior.” Spring 2014 PATH Intl STRIDES. 1/6/2015
  10. Pelletier-Milet, Claudine. Riding on the Autism Spectrum: How Horses Open New Doors for Children with ASD: One Teacher’s Experiences Using EAAT to Instill Confidence and Promote Independence
  11. PATH Intl Precautions & Contraindications


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!

2 thoughts on “Riders with Autism Part 2 – Preparation

  1. I just wanted to say thank you for doing all this I’m 15 years old and have been around horses for many years, we recently started offering lessons to kids around the neighbor hood and one parent asked us if their son with autism could come over and maybe ride or even just be with the horses. I have known for many years now that I want to work with horses to do therapeutic riding but at 15, I didn’t quite know how to handle a rider with autism so I dug into research and found your blog and its been super helpful and seeing the smile on that boys face when he was able to ride a horse was priceless so thank you so much

    • You are welcome!! I’m so glad the blog has helped you adapt your riding lessons and get some smiles 🙂 Best of luck to your teaching him!

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