Sensory Integration – Autism Spectrum Workshop

Workshop Sensory Integration and Autism

Christa Schorn LCSW, is shown here participating in the “hands-on” activity at the day long Sensory Integration Workshop.

What a great opportunity to visit with the High Hope Therapeutic Riding School in Old Lyme, Connecticut. The workshop was full of information about senses and how they can be perceived differently, depending on how the individual processes them.

The barn tour was informational and it was very interesting to learn how different their set up is from other stand alone therapeutic riding schools. We are coming back to work with new information as well as support and validation from colleagues in the field of therapeutic riding.

Therapeutic Riding–Improve Communication by Releasing the Tendon Guard Reflex

 Releasing the Tendon Guard Reflex

The Tendon Guard Reflex which is activated by stress may be relieved by the action of “heels down”.   Horseback riding can be used as a tool to reduce the tendon guard reflex which is the body’s natural response to fear. This reflex causes all the tendons in the back of the body to shorten.( Judith Cross-Strehlke)

Shortened calf muscles, toe walkers, often show up in autistic and speech impaired people. These people may be exhibiting an exaggerated tendon guard reflex in response to stress. Carla Hannaford, PhD., has found a correlation between shortened calf muscles and the limited ability to speak or communicate.  She advocates for activities that consciously bring neural attention towards a relaxed calf and the whole back body.

What is the Tendon Guard Reflex?

The Tendon Guard Reflex is activated with stress in response to protecting the muscles and tendons and is characterized as Red or Green Light.  A healthy mature Red Light reflex initiates a freeze and fight response. A person with a hyperactive red light TGR is over-focused on unimportant details, can perseverate, or simply shut down or freeze. A person with a hypoactive red light TGR seems unaware that focused attention is needed and continues with whatever activity he is actively engaged in, remaining oblivious to any need relating to a looming danger or obligation. .  (Dr. Masgutova, MNRI Body System Integration Program)

 A healthy, mature Green light response initiates a flight response when posed with certain stress.  A person with a hyperactive green light TGR often acts without much forethought, can misread the situation, and respond impulsively, often resulting in a fight or flight reaction without much provocation. A person with a hypoactive green light TGR remains relatively nonresponsive to events and experiences that generally elicit action in others.  (Dr. Masgutova, MNRI Body System Integration Program)

Therapeutic and classical horseback riding provide opportunities to stretch and relax the tendons and muscles along the back of the leg.  Riding students are encouraged to bring their heels down, allowing their weight to drop into their heels.  Exercising and stretching the tendons, which facilitates tension release via the Tendon Guard Reflex; helps bring the whole body to a renewed relaxation.

Riding lessons and time with horses naturally provide physiological benefits.  The calm nature of horses becomes a calming force for our riders. The horse’s gaits act as a soothing mechanism for riders.   Equestrians have always encouraged heels down for safety purposes, and now Therapeutic Riding instructors and those working in the field of Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy have another tool to aid with releasing the TGR and exploring the benefits.

Benefits of Therapeutic Horseback Riding

By Nancy Tejo PATH Intl. Certified Therapeutic Riding Instructor

Horse movement and the interaction with horses provide benefits and opportunities for improvement in many areas. Some of these include cognitive, sensory, proprioception, gross and fine motor skills, muscle development, and psycho-social development.

Opportunities to improve cognitive development are created as the riders show an increased willingness to participate on horseback. This motivation enhances their ability to focus and follow directions. Riders show an improvement in attention, concentration, and comprehension.

Sensory input is delivered to the riders from the horse and the enriched environment at the barn. Sights, sounds, smells and tactile sensations are presented by the riding equipment, grooming tools, horse’s coat, and movement. Outdoor therapy and activities provides a natural environment which helps people relax, reduce stress and instill a sense of well-being. Exercising in a green space is more beneficial than forms that concentrate on exertion without considering the surroundings. (Stephen Riddell, 2011)

Maneuvering a horse around the ring in specific patterns requires motor planning. Riders execute the correct sequence of events by navigating the riding ring. They steer around cones, over poles, pass appropriate letters and work with other riders in the ring.

Proprioception, knowing where one’s body in is space, encourages development of balance and coordination. Riders learn to maintain proper alignment of their body and personal body placement while around the horses. This translates to learning personal space on the ground.

The unique sensory stimulation of the horse’s movement and the deep pressure experienced by the rider when mounted on the animal provides the sensation of walking. The walking and trotting movement of the horse stimulates the riders muscles needed for walking and coordination and aids in encouraging correct locomotion.

Results of the interaction between mounted rider and horse includes correction of body posture, gross motor skills, increased core development and improved muscle symmetry. (William Benda, The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. December 2003)

Riders adjusting to the constant motion of the horse, mounting, dismounting, posting, balancing in the stirrups, holding two-point position, and steering are activities which provide opportunities to increase gross motor function.

Fine motor skills development is encouraged by the proper holding of the reins, grooming the horse’s mane and tail, assisting with buckling, unbuckling and tacking the horses. These acquired competencies can readily be transferred to functional life skills for children with autism. (Margaret Ann Stickney, 2010)

Come and meet a Sky Riding LI horse, Central Islip, LI. Therapeutic Riding benefits everyone including individual with mental, physical and emotional delays. Sky Riding LI at Parkview Equestrian Center also offers Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy for anyone looking for peace, balance and clarity and make changes in their lives. Please call 516-241-2046 for more information or visit