Equine enthusiast Haya Jamal Isa is building emotional bridges for children with autism in Bahrain through her love of horses.
The 23-year-old soon-to-be-mum has been providing equine therapy, known as ‘hippotherapy’ for autistic youngsters aged three to 12 since February last year, in a bid to help them improve their motor, emotional and sensory sensations that will assist them with daily challenges.
“I wanted to create something new, using my love for horses, to benefit the community,” said Haya who is studying therapeutic riding online from a US Indiana university and working on the project under the guidance of the Bahrain Royal Equestrian Endurance Federation.
“That is when I thought I’d put my passion to work by being there for autistic children using hippotherapy.”
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication and behavioural challenges and children with autism can experience deficits in language, sensory processing and reading social cues.
Hippotherapy, which was actually developed in the 1960s and used in Germany, Austria and Switzerland as an adjunct to traditional physical therapy, has been shown to improve balance, strength and motor co-ordination.
The movement of the horse affects a rider’s posture, balance, co-ordination, strength and sensorimotor systems. It has also been proven to be effective in promoting language, sensory regulation as well as improving social skills as students often form an emotional bond with the horses they ride on.
According to the Autism Spectrum Disorder Foundation in the US, autistic children have difficulty bonding emotionally to others and being around horses can help improve that by brushing them, hugging them and patting them.
By learning to care for the horse, autistic children associate the care they provide with feelings and an emotional bridge is constructed. This bond can lead to social and communication skill development with other people as well.
Riding can also help liven up sensory preceptors and cognitive skills can also be enhanced through fun activities and play. For example, equine therapists have children throw coloured balls into baskets while riding, touch their eyes, mouth and ears during a song, and identify scenes – all incorporated during riding.
Horse riding is also believed to help reduce irritability, provide calmness and even watching the other riders can be visually stimulating. Hearing the hoofs can also impact other senses.
“The children are having so much fun that they don’t even realise they are participating in a therapy session,” said Haya, who provides the training at Bahrain International Endurance Village in Sakhir.
“At the moment, I have two horses, one staff member and volunteers assisting in the therapy twice a week, from 4pm to 5pm. During the session, children ride the horses, groom them, feed them and even paint them along with other fun activities.
“It brings me joy to see the children smiling and I have also seen improvement in their abilities. They have been truly benefiting from this.” Sessions will start again after Covid-19 restrictions are lifted and plans are in place to restart with social distancing protocols remaining in place.
“While we are currently training at the village, my dream is to one day launch a big centre for them and there are already plans for that in the future in the same location.”
At the moment, Haya and her team only specialise in caring for autistic children but she is working on catering to other needs in the future.