Al Shaqab’s program offers specialized therapeutic lessons to children with Autism in Qatar
The equine world offers a variety of benefits to people. Horses not only have beauty and grace; science and research have proved that interacting with them can improve both physical and mental health - especially for children with disabilities.
This is why Al Shaqab – the equine and equestrian center that is a member of Qatar Foundation is contributing to national efforts to develop and provide services for people with Autism, by offering a unique equine therapy program designed to help and support children who have been diagnosed with the condition.
Creating a bond
Chiara Rosi, a certified therapeutic instructor at Al Shaqab’s Equine Education Department, is responsible for providing the therapeutic riding lessons for Autistic children, and explains: “Horses have an amazingly positive and empathic power, and when a horse and a child with Autism start interacting, they eventually build a special bond with each other.
When a horse and a child with Autism start interacting, they eventually build a special bond with each other
“A child with Autism may find it difficult to understand non-verbal signals. Horses give non-verbal cues through their body language, and children gradually learn to pick up these non-verbal cues and begin to understand them better. I use this to help the children to understand and interact with other people around them, and it also helps them to control their tone of voice and their body language.”
According to Rosi, equine therapy offers a wide range of benefits for children with Autism - from the psychological to the social and educational.
“When a child has a control over a horse, and that horse responds to the child’s command, it boosts their confidence level,” she says. “They feel a sense of general wellbeing, while also having reduced feelings of insecurity and fear.”
Rosi also highlighted how this form of therapy promotes the development of respect, responsibility, perseverance, and love toward animals, and that the positive attitude that children acquire from the experience improves their social integration. It can also advance their cognitive and language skills.
In equine therapy, any kind of improvement has to be assessed over the long-term, and never over just a short period of time
“Children with Autism often have difficulty comprehending normal instructions,” she said. “By engaging in equine therapy, children follow directions through a fun activity that makes taking direction easier to grasp and remember.
“Equine therapy teaches students that relationships involve responsibility; for example, some lessons begin or end with the student brushing, cleaning, or feeding the horses. This allows them to establish a relationship of trust with the horse and build a stronger bond.”
Supporting the community
Al Shaqab’s program has gained a significant degree of attention from the community in Qatar. It offers its services to parents, Qatar Autism Society, and Renad Academy school, a specialized school which is a part of QF’s Pre-University Education and helps children with Autism.
“As a part of their school activities, Renad Academy students have been routinely attending lessons, and the feedback has been extremely positive” said Rosi.
“We offer lessons to almost 65 Renad Academy students, and we currently have seven classes with each student attends one class per week. Each class is divided by age and by the scale of Autism, consisting of a 30-minute equine therapy lesson at Al Shaqab’s indoor arena, and 15 minutes of stable management and grooming the horse.”
There is a significant reduction in the severity of Autism symptoms and hyperactivity at the end of the initial lessons compared to when they started
According to Rosi, the way these lessons have helped children with Autism to deal with the challenges they face are clear. “In equine therapy, any kind of improvement has to be assessed over the long-term, and never over just a short period of time,” she said. “Some students, for example, need several lessons before they can pat one horse.
“The first success indicator is that all the students participate positively and cheerfully in the lessons. I have noticed improvements in the way many of the students communicate with me, their level of confidence and the way they socialize in terms of making eye contact and their use of language.
“There is a significant reduction in the severity of Autism symptoms and hyperactivity at the end of the initial lessons compared to when they started. Children know that a horse will not judge them, and this helps them feel safe and consequently bond easily with the horse. My goal is to help the children to interact with the horse and use its movement and rhythm to achieve therapeutic goals”.
As for what she has personally gained from the program, Rosi said: “Sometimes it is not easy to manage the lessons, because the emotions of the students change quickly and each lesson is different from another.
“However, there is always a solution. With the amazing team we have at Al Shaqab, and with the confidence that horses do provide a positive, relaxing, comfortable, and safe environment for students, we always believe we can overcome these challenges.
“With the support of QF’s Community Development, we are working to improve and enhance the current program, increase its resources, and offer the program to a wider range of people throughout Qatar.”