Riders with Autism Part 3 – Lesson Planning & Activities

Time to talk about the actual lesson! All of these are ideas – you don’t have to do them, they’re just possibilities for what might work with your rider.

All these ideas are compiled from the resources listed at the end of the post. In formal essays you should give credit for ideas and quotes, but I want to keep references from being too distracting, so I’m going to let you know right now that most of the ideas listed here are from Susan Lutz’s handout “Communication Strategies, Development, and Tools for Participants,” Susan McDowell’s seminar “TOOLS from the AUTISM SPECTRUM DISORDERS SURVIVAL KIT,” and Claudine Pelletier-Milet’s book Riding on the Autism Spectrum. I myself rewrote and organize everything into the format you see below most useful for lesson planning.

Riders with Autism Part 3 – Lesson Planning & Activities


  • Determine private or group lesson
    • Depends on rider
    • For one on one attention, do a private
    • For learning social skills, do a group
    • Consider doing the first lessons private until everyone feels comfortable with each other, then later incorporate them into a group
  • Modify the environment and activities based on their preferences and sensory issues
    • Smell – don’t use smells they don’t like (fly spray, perfume, etc.)
    • Light – to their preference, bright or dim
    • Texture – use textures they do like (let them choose which type of rein to use), avoid ones they don’t like (bubbles may be too slimy)
    • Color – use their favorite colors (for rings, letters, props, etc.)
    • Objects – don’t use objects they don’t like (at first)
  • Prep the rider
    • Ask the parents to tell them what to expect
    • Give them a social story to help them know what to expect and transition well
    • Create cue cards, visual schedules, social stories, any props you may need to help communication
    • Ask them to get used to wearing a helmet before coming by practicing wearing one at home, such as during a positive activity they enjoy
    • If there is a known behavior problem, teach an alternative behavior that serves the same purpose (ex: if the rider pulls hair, give them a fidget toy to keep their hands busy, or have the sidewalkers wear helmets)


  • Keep a calm, quiet manner. Claudine suggests avoiding eye contact – some children are really upset by it, or have a hard time talking and looking at the same time
  • Keep introductions short. Claudine suggests saying very little and letting the horse do the work.
  • Check in how their day has gone, then don’t change your lesson plan, but be prepared to if something comes up in the lesson
  • If rider is agitated, do what is best for them to calm down
    • Get right on the horse and let the movement calm them
    • Help the leader walk the horse some laps before mounting while talking with the volunteers
  • If rider is frightened, Claudine suggests not saying much but letting the horse have the calming effect you want. When parents say “don’t be frightened” it often has the opposite effect.
  • Helmet on
  • Offer them to put the helmet on themselves first.
  • If they have sensory issues:
    • Make sure the strap is pre-adjusted, or long enough to fasten quickly then tighten later
    • Try not to touch their face.
    • Make sure the strap is not in their ears.
    • Explain what you are doing: “Helmet on. Strap on. Dial up.” (McDowell)
  • If they have helmet issues:
    • Explain why they need it “for safety” (McDowell)
    • Demo for them, say “My turn. Your turn.” (McDowell)
    • Have their parents put the helmet on.
    • Have a familiar person hold their arms with firm pressure while you quickly put the helmet on.
    • Ask them to practice putting a helmet on at home.


  • Walk to mounting area
    • Offer your hand to lead him out.
    • If he doesn’t take it but doesn’t draw away, try to take his hand while telling him what you are doing.
    • If you’re in doubt about holding his hand, hold his forearm with firm pressure.
    • If he’s tactile defensive, hold his forearm with firm pressure.
    • If that doesn’t work, try holding his upper body from behind.
    • Count the steps up the block
    • Have him help run his stirrups down, if able – a good proprioceptive activity
  • The Mount
    • Use sequences and task analysis
    • If resistant, have sidewalker secure hands at wrist on pommel
    • Hold the reins – place the reins in their palm without touching them – by either holding the rein up, or holding on either side of where you want them to grasp and placing it against their palm – if he resists, it could be a sensory issue so give him a choice of which reins to use
    • For the first lesson, Claudine likes to just put the child right in the saddle without much looking or talking and set right off at the walk, then wait for the child to make the first move toward interaction.
  • Settle
    • If tactile defensive, apply firm squeeze pressure or kneading to arms and calves – squeeze pressure can help relax them
    • If clings to sidewalkers, direct him to hold the pommel and/or his reins – may need hand over hand help
    • If he covers his ears, check the environment for the sound and talk softly
    • Direct sidewalkers to apply holds in places the rider is not tactile defensive
      • If sensitive thigh = ankle hold
      • If sensitive thigh and ankle = knee (not really a hold, but can help)
      • If sensitive everywhere and has good balance = no hold
    • Claudine likes to invite the parents to come with her, as she involves them in as much as possible.

Warm ups

  • Just walk
    • Start with just moving around the arena, 1 lap each way or more
    • Helps relax and develop their seat
    • Let the horse’s movement relax the rider
    • Contact with the horse provides proprioceptive input they need
    • Just sitting on the horse helps them take up a good postural position that will lead to other things such as looking around, body awareness, speech, and self confidence.
    • If it’s their first ride, Claudine likes to walk quietly alongside them, without making eye contact, while they build up their confidence, and the horse’s movement works its magic.
  • Orient
    • Encourage awareness of the horse, arena, and smells – explain them
    • Point out any differences in changes to the arena
  • Stimulation
    • Provide them with the stimulation they are seeking to help calm and focus them
    • Use the info you gathered from your rider research
    • Ex: Ride prone for 5-10 min
    • Ex: Lay back on the horse
    • Ex: Allow the horse’s movement to be choppy
  • Exercises (McDowell)
    • Activities for flexing, reaching, and rotating – to help develop a good seat
    • Arms out
      • Help straighten arms by touching elbow or upper arm, not pulling wrist
    • Arm circles
      • To help keep their arms straight, hold their hands
      • If they are tactile sensitive, use a noodle to hold instead of hands
      • If they won’t grasp, use firm hand over hand and say “Hold. You do it.”
      • Verbally prompt “Up. Down.” As you raise and lower your hand or noodle.
    • Use their likes and familiar phrases
      • Ex: “Spongebob says…” (like Simon Says)
      • Ex: Twist left (“Spongebob!”) Twist right (“Squarepants!”)
      • Ex: Arm circles to “Row Row Row Your Boat”
    • Use music
      • Ask parents for song ideas they like
      • For group lessons use the chicken dance or hokey pokey

Riding Skills

    • Teach the same skills you teach anyone else
    • Start with the basics: Walk on, Halt, and Steering.
    • Always use the same words, phrases, and gestures in the same order, to keep things consistent and clear.
    • Help them discover that they themselves can control the direction and speed of the horse
      • Direct volunteers not to do anything for them
      • Allow time for processing.
      • Turn them loose! Teach them the basics, then unclip the leader. Often this works wonders! Some riders will not do anything for themselves if you show any sign of helping, but once you stop helping, they start doing it all. For more about that, see my post “Turn ‘Em Loose!”
    • Teach to their strengths
    • Teach to their interests
      • Ex: “Spongebob would love for you to put your heels down” (McDowell)
      • Ex: One of my riders repeats songs he loves, so for steering we use the Electric Slides “To the left! To the left!” and “To the right! To the right!” and for horse parts we use “Head and shoulders, knees and hooves!”
    • Be patient, it may take a long time to understand the reins and their connection to the horse.
    • Teach balance at all the gaits even if they don’t understand the aids yet. Claudine will put her riders on the lunge line at the walk, trot and canter.
    • If they lean forward (such as during trotting), have them hold a ball (while sidewalkers thigh hold).


  • Obstacle course
    • Incorporate objects for all the senses
    • Discover which objects they like best and use them as motivation for applying riding skills
  • Trail ride, Sensory trail
    • Name objects (trees, leaves, ants, butterflies)
    • Riding outside may calm them down, or worry them extremely. Be in tune to what they need.
  • Games
    • Incorporate games they can do with others outside of riding, such as catch, basketball, dice, blocks, fishing, bean bag toss, etc.
  • Social
    • Group activities – work as part of a team, learn to listen
  • Educational
    • Incorporate themes – weather, colors, numbers
    • Incorporate challenges and achievements outside the box
  • Self-Advocacy Skills
    • Learning to follow orders
    • Learning to make choices – always give them choices, even if they keep choosing the same thing
    • Voicing their needs appropriately

Claudine’s Activities

While Claudine never says step by step what she does with her riders, her stories tell of many similar progressive activities based on her theories on autism and the processes she notices her riders go through. I have put the following together as the usual activities and ordering she appears to use, with insights that have proved invaluable to me. I’m not claiming an exact representation, just what I got from her book, which I would recommend you read yourself, called Riding on the Autism Spectrum.

  • 1) Introduce new objects
    • Objects to use:
      • Balls, rings
      • Balloons – different colors and different heights
      • Rotating objects – such as spinning balloons, balls, truck wheels, sand running through fingers
      • Objects to smell – can create spatial markers and give them a sense of security
      • Trail ride objects – such as branches to smell
    • 1) Make objects appear and disappear
      • Helps them learn object permanence
      • Use balls, rings, etc. – observe closely which items bring them comfort and use them first, then introduce others
      • Use yourself – play Peekaboo, hide and seek
      • Use their self – may pull down their hat to hide you, or hide behind something
    • 2) Pass the objects
      • Helps them learn relationships
      • Pick up the object and hand it to the sidewalker or their parent
      • After a few days, hand it to the rider – if they throw it on the ground it’s okay, they are learning about the object and the depth of space around them, just keep trying, the next time they might keep hold of it
      • Take turns: “For you.” “For me.” “I give it to you.” “You give it to me.” – helps them develop a concept of you vs. me
    • 3) Move the objects around
      • Helps them locate themselves in space, and learn to move the pony
      • Encourage looking up, down, ahead, around at the objects
      • Empty and fill baskets with balls
      • Move balls from one place to another
      • Place cones or rings on top of posts of different height, at the halt and while the horse is moving
    • 4) Remove your support in manipulating the objects
      • Slowly take away your support, to help the rider understand that his experience was a result of his own interaction with an object, not your presence
    • Throughout:
      • If any sign of boredom, switch to another game
      • Teach by example and consistency
      • Encourage imitation, demo movements for them several times until they gain courage
      • Activities are structured the same every time so no confusion
      • Show discretion and patience at every stage
  • 2) You explain, talk & gesture
    • When the time is right, include more interactions with the rider.
    • Explain what is happening, name the things you see.
      • Always use the same name/words to keep things consistent.
      • Be calm, direct, use a melodious voice, think positive loving thoughts.
      • Don’t raise your voice, give no suggestions of lying, be careful of your facial expressions, as they are more sensitive to subtle tone of voice and negativity.
      • Ex: Explain the place you are moving through, the objects around, the actions they perform, the noises and where they come from.
      • Ex: When they are bothered by a noise, take them to it and explain it
    • Look at things together, follow things with your eyes and remark about them.
    • Put into words what you think is going on in their mind
      • Claudine says “I am there to put the child’s thoughts into words and say what is attracting his attention, and this reinforces the learning process”
    • Be direct with no suggestion of lying or deception
  • 3) They imitate, babble, laugh
    • By now the rider will watch the objects or you with interest, start imitating what you do, and start repeating the words you use.
    • Don’t force it. Leave a space between you for him to slip into when he feels confident enough.
    • Remember, posture comes before speech, so focus on posture first. It is hard for them to speak when they cannot breathe freely.
    • Start teaching simple language, repeated words and gestures.
    • Echoing is an important step representing “‘an effort … to communicate when they find normal language too difficult to master.'”
    • Help make connections between letters and words with the arena letters, name tags, stall name plates.
    • When they learn a new word, use it back to them in short phrases to prepare them for conversation.
    • Use the horse as an example. The horse’s breathing and speaking may help teach the child how to do so themselves.
    • Laugh with them! This is a BIG step in your relationship and soon verbalizing will follow, Claudine says.
  • 4) Explore together
    • Purpose of exploring
      • Provide new physical and emotional experiences
      • Share experiences together, notice things together
      • Opportunity to laugh together
    • Explore facial expressions
      • Share them
        • Smile at them – Claudine says “the joy of life – this is what I try to get across to my autistic children”
        • Respond to their facial expressions – exchange smiles, give reactions, when they smile, share their joy! Exchange glances, and laugh
        • Don’t make expressions that might cause alarm or imply deception
      • Play games
        • Mimic them – when they smile or make a face, imitate it
        • Provoke reactions – laugh together, be cross, happy, firm – enables them to distinguish between your wishes and his
        • Hide and seek – laugh when you meet their eyes again
        • Help them discover “the other person” through game
    • Explore touch
      • Let them touch the horse and you
      • Demonstrate touching the pony correctly
      • Is an important sensory step, experiencing something warm, soft, alive
      • Touching the horse teaches him to accept contact with another living being
    • Explore the body
      • Teach him the parts of his body, yours, and the horse’s
      • Helps him put his body together by building up another’s
        • If he touches your face, you touch each part of his while naming them, and maybe he will mirror your actions.
      • Teach him that parts of his body can influence the horse’s actions – hands to halt and steer, feet for walk on, etc.
      • Then help him see that his body is separate from the horse’s and yours – instead of doing things for or with him, ask that he do them.
        • Ex) First he used her hand to point out objects as though it were an extension of his own. Later she withdraws her hand to use it to point independently and have him imitate her.
        • Ex) “One day I had to say to her that my body was not part of her body, and therefore it was not possible for me to deal with all her anguish unless she recognized that I was a different person. Only then could I help her. ‘No…I simply cannot step into your shoes and be you. … then I told her I understood how very difficult it was.” (Pelletier-Milet)
    • Explore space
      • Ride from place to place
        • Helps them conquer space and establish markers that define their surroundings
        • Explore the barn and arena
        • Familiarize him with everything that can be seen, touched, smelled, etc.
      • Incorporate objects
        • Carry objects from one place to another
        • Toss the ball – onto the ground helps them learn depth
        • Explain space to them – “On the ground.” “Up high.” Etc.
      • Expose them to as many things as possible
        • Objects, situations, emotions, smells, sounds, sights – the barn is rich with these!
        • Provides the opportunity to share an experience, which is the start of communication
        • Teach him to cope with the unexpected
        • Inspire the child to begin exploring for himself
        • Let the child explore the arena on foot, if they need to.
    • Explore time
      • Lesson timing – keep the lesson format consistent. Greet them when they arrive, say goodbye when they leave, play certain games at regular times in the same sequence.
      • Waiting – introduce waiting and delayed gratification, a few moments at a time, when they are ready
      • Planning – discuss future plans, and set regular or important events
    • Explore food
      • By watching the pony eat, they become more willing to try new foods
      • Visit the garden and feed the pony carrots
  • 5) Expression of emotions
    • Expressing fear
      • When things change, address it. Point it out to them and talk about it
      • Express fears – encourage them to put words to their fears
      • Deal with fears – then encourage them to confront those fears
      • This helps develop compassion, as they understand more what others are going through.
      • Go slowly, accept where they are at in this process. Don’t make demands.
        • Ex) if they can’t say please or thank you, say something else will do – ex) “Don’t worry, give me a kiss and that will do.” (Pelletier-Milet)
      • Suggest that the pony protects them, that they can trust it.
        • Ex) If the child is afraid of the woods on a trail ride, tell them “we will not encounter any dragons or dinosaurs or wolves because they are frightened of ponies, particularly when ridden by knights.” (Pelletier-Milet)
    • Teach emotions
      • First let your responses be calm with an even tone, so as not to frighten them. When the child is ready, give responses with more emotion that are appropriate to their emotions.
      • Use your expressions to teach them emotions.
        • Ex) The rider knocks over poles, Claudine makes a face and says “I’m angry with you” and points at the poles. He puts them back up. She smiles and tells him she is happy. Keep the tone the same. Don’t raise your voice or panic them.


  • The results of these activities
    • The rider can look at the world around him and start living in it.
    • The pony holds them safely and high up, giving them a new feeling of independence. Turn their anxieties into good experiences. They no longer need someone else’s psychic envelope of protection, they have grown their own.
    • Gradually they learn they can control the pony, which gives them a sense of “otherness.”
    • They can only control the pony so much – they also require its cooperation, which is gained through respecting it. They must treat the pony as they want it to treat them. If they want the great sensations from the pony, they need to treat it well.
  • Depends on the child
    • Each one is different. One may be so fearful it takes a few lessons before they adapt to the rhythm and relax. Another may quickly learn to balance, and is so proud he turns himself all the way around in the saddle. Adapt to the rider.
  • Provide opportunities to grow up
    • Ride with a group.
      • This gives them someone to observe and mimic. It also gives the other rider a chance to be grown up. If they have trouble with you giving one rider more attention than the other, explain that sometimes someone needs more help than someone else in order to grow up – I have not forgotten about you, but you are so grown up and a good rider that you need less help.
    • Deal with discomfort.
      • If there’s a crisis, encourage them that it is something they are capable of dealing with by themselves, that they are able to feel the discomfort and cope.

Coming up next: Teaching Techniques

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!

One thought on “Riders with Autism Part 3 – Lesson Planning & Activities

  1. This article seemed to be geared toward the younger rider. How about more ideas for teens and adults?


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