> Boy with autism has never spoken a word. Then horse helps him say “hello” to his family

Boy with autism has never spoken a word. Then horse helps him say “hello” to his family


Fennec Hurley couldn’t speak, was hyper, and was physically violent. But that was before the 2-year-old came to Strides.

The autistic toddler wasn’t making any progress with traditional occupational therapy, so his swim coach suggested he visit Ireland’s only hippotherapy service. Strides Therapy Clinic teaches physical, occupational, speech and language therapy by working with horses.

Ciara Fehilly said her son initially protested the weekly 40 minute supervised horseback sessions at Strides but things changed during his fourth session. That’s when we started to be able to form words like “Hello” and “Bye-bye.”


“He had never said these words before,” Fehilly said. “I was amazed by this. I was floored. I was gobsmacked.”

During his therapy, Fennec will ride on a horse’s back very slowly while his therapist sings songs, blows bubbles, or plays with toys or puzzles.

“He’s normally very hyper and aggressive, but that fourth session left me reeling because he had spoken and was so tranquil,” Fehilly said. “Before he went to Strides, he was very aggressive. I would be bruised from him and he would bruise himself. It was out of frustration because he couldn’t get the words out. Now he no longer hits himself, or me, and has loads of new words.”

Fehilly says her son would leave her bruise and would often injure himself and get frustrated because he could verbalize things properly, but since his time at Strides he no longer hits himself or his mom and can speak lots of words.


Occupational therapist Sarah Beasley opened Strides opened about three years ago.

“To us, a horse is a therapeutic tool like a therapy ball or a therapy swing,” she said. “We are using the three-dimensional movement of the horse’s pelvis in a clinical, evidence-based way to influence the various systems of the body – sensory, nervous, musculoskeletal – to help children function better in everyday life.”

According to Beasley, each time the horse walks, that movement is transmitted through the child’s body.


“As therapists, we direct the horse through different movements,” she explains. “These specific movement impact on the different systems of the body, helping to regulate and stabilize them.”

The horse’s rhythmic movements help autistic children to regulate imbalances that make them over or under-sensitive to sound.

“Different horses, different movements by the horse, and different horseback positions for the client all help influence the systems within the body,” Beasley said. “We have had children who come in with their hands over their ears because the very ordinary noise around them is too much for them. The movement of the horses regulates that imbalance within them and after a few sessions noise is no longer an issue for the child.”

Hippotherapy also helps autistic children to process information, increase communication, make them more aware of their body and physical risks in their environment, as well as improve social interaction. Hippotherapy can boost motivation, confidence, attention span and concentration.

Strides also helped 21-year-old Stella who was silent then speech restricted after an accident. She started showing improvement after just one treatment.

“Once Stella got up on the horse, her verbal interaction significantly improved – the effect was almost immediate. She continues to improve,” said Stella’s mother, Jackie.

Looks like the future of therapy for all with these issues should be four-legged.

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