Horses Lend a Helping Hoof to Kids with Autism

OLD LYME, Conn. (WTNH) — Throughout history, horses have been used for everything from transportation to recreation, but now the majestic creatures are helping kids like 10-year-old Sofia Rake. For her, High Hopes Therapeutic Riding in Old Lyme is her safe haven.

“Here she’s just a kid just like every other kid riding a horse,” said her mom Laurie Laterza of High Hopes Therapeutic Riding in Old Lyme.

When she was three-and-a-half years old, Sofia was diagnosed with PDD-NOS, a form of autism. Soon after, her mom Laurie enrolled her in equine therapy.

“She had very little language,” Laurie recalled. “She didn’t walk until she was two, really low muscle tone, coordination issues and no language whatsoever at the time.”

For the past six years, Sofia has been taking riding lessons.

“We work with a wide variety of people of all kinds of disabilities figuring out what that individual needs and we essentially create an individual riding plan,” explained Kitty Stalsburg, the executive director of High Hopes.

For Sofia, much of that plan involves improving her communication skills.

“For someone who has a speech and language issue, we’re working on using the words “whoa’ and ‘walk on’ and the motivation of telling the horse what to do, so that’s enhancing expressive language,” Stalsburg said.

Many of the things Sofia learns while riding translate to other parts of her life.

“We’re really working on life skills — attention, focus, social skills,” Stalsburg explained. “She’s able to more safely ride a bike, play on the gym at school, interact with other people.”

Research shows working with horses can help kids reduce their stress and anger levels, as well as improve their self esteem. For Sofia, equine therapy has helped her make leaps and bounds.

“Her journey with us over the years that she’s been riding has been exponential,” Stalsburg said.

“Just to see how much she’s grown, to do things that I never wished for her to do is actually really incredible,” Laurie explained.

Stalsburg says equine therapy may also help people with cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury and PTSD, among other conditions. For more information about High Hopes Therapeutic Riding, visit

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