Can Horses Sense Autism? The Surprising Research

Can Horses Sense Autism

Some theorize that horses may be able to sense autism in humans due to their strong sensory abilities and instincts as prey animals. Here are some proposed ideas on how horses could potentially detect autism:

  • Sensitivity to behaviors – Horses are extremely adept at reading body language and responding to subtle cues. Some speculate that they may pick up on the unique behavioral patterns and movements of those with autism, such as repetitive motions, poor eye contact, and unusual social interactions.
  • Sensitivity to smells – Horses have an acute sense of smell that is far more powerful than humans. They may potentially smell chemical or hormonal differences in those with autism that are invisible to us.
  • Sensitivity to sounds – Horses have large, movable ears that allow them to pick up a wide range of sounds. Some believe they may notice the distinct vocal tones, pitches, and patterns that can occur with autism.
  • Sixth sense – Due to their hyper-aware nature for detecting predators, some believe horses may have an innate “sixth sense” that allows them to detect anything unusual or different, including the neurological differences present in autism.
  • Intuition – Some attribute it simply to natural horse intuition that allows them to pick up on the unique essence or vibe of a person with autism due to their calm, non-judgmental nature.

Of course, more research is needed to provide scientific evidence for these speculations. However many horse specialists observe horses responding differently to autistic people, suggesting they do detect something we cannot.


Anecdotes of Horses Sensing Autism

While scientific evidence is still limited, there are many anecdotal stories of horses displaying calmer, more attentive behavior around autistic people. Some key examples:

  • A boy named Joey was extremely anxious and aggressive, unable to participate in regular horse therapy sessions. But with one particular horse named Cody, he was calm and interactive. Joey’s mother recounts how Cody would stand still for Joey to hug him, calmly obeying commands that would make other horses skittish.
  • A girl named Sarah could not speak until age 9 but began making vocal sounds when interacting with horses at a therapy center. She became closest with a horse named Riley, often sitting quietly with him for hours while leaning into his body in a calming hug.
  • An autistic woman in her 20s found she could ride horses when she could not interact with people. She describes the “oneness” she felt with horses, as they peacefully matched her pace and rhythms. One horse would affectionately nuzzle her when she felt upset or overstimulated.
  • At an equestrian center, a boy with severe autism who normally avoided eye contact and touch would spontaneously hug and kiss horses. The center’s director observed the most profound change in his engagement when interacting with one mare.
  • A retreat leader recounts a family with an autistic daughter who could only scream, hum, and rock. But when placed on a horse, the daughter made distinct sounds resembling words for the very first time while riding.

These heartwarming anecdotes suggest horses may intuitively sense and respond calmly to autism in some remarkable way that science has yet to fully explain. While more research is needed, the stories point to promising potential benefits of equine therapy.


Studies on Horses and Autism

While many anecdotal reports claim that horses can sense when someone has autism, there have been very few scientific studies done to test this hypothesis.

One small study in 2010 looked at how 28 riding horses reacted to the presence of a child with autism compared to typically developing children. Researchers analyzed the horses’ stress levels by measuring their heart rate variability. They found that the horses showed more stress behaviors and signs of agitation when a child with autism was in the riding area. However, the study had a very small sample size and limited measures, so larger studies are still needed.

Another study in 2012 examined how horses reacted to the smell of autistic versus non-autistic children. The researchers collected sweat samples from autistic and non-autistic kids and exposed horses to the scent samples. They found that horses sniffed autistic sweat samples longer, indicating they detected a difference in scent. However, critics argued the scent could have been confounded by factors unrelated to autism.

Some researchers also theorize that horses may be responding to subtle muscle tension, body language, or behaviors associated with autism that provide sensory cues. However, more controlled research is still required to validate if horses can actually differentiate autistic behaviors and respond differently as a result.

Many people believe horses have an innate ability to detect autism, but there is currently limited scientific evidence for this claim. More research is needed using larger sample sizes, controlled variables, and robust measures of horse behavior and physiology. As of now, the phenomenon remains largely anecdotal and unproven experimentally. However future studies could help shed more light on this fascinating possibility of inter-species communication.


Horse Therapy for Autism

Equine therapy, also known as horse therapy, has become a popular treatment option for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Interacting with and riding horses provides a range of benefits for autistic patients.

The physical act of riding a horse can help improve balance, coordination, muscle tone, and motor skills. The warmth and rhythmic movement of the horse can have a calming effect. Caring for horses also teaches responsibility, empathy, and relationship skills.

Equine therapy provides a unique opportunity for nonverbal communication and emotional connection. Horses are extremely sensitive and responsive creatures. They mirror the behaviors and emotions of humans around them. This allows autistic children to work on their nonverbal communication skills including eye contact, body language, and facial expressions.

Working with horses in an open environment can help autistic children improve sensory processing skills. The smells, textures, sounds, and sights around a stable engage multiple senses. With the guidance of a trained therapist, children can learn how to process this sensory information and regulate their emotional reactions.

Equine therapy sessions are often unstructured with no set routine. This allows therapists to challenge autistic children to deal with unpredictability, problem-solve, and think flexibly. Group sessions can also provide opportunities for social interaction with peers.


Skepticism and Lack of Evidence

While there are many anecdotes of horses seeming to sense and respond differently to children with autism, there is currently little scientific evidence to support the idea that horses can definitively detect autism spectrum disorder.

Some experts are skeptical about horses having a “sixth sense” for autism due to the lack of controlled studies on this topic. Anecdotes and stories alone are not considered scientifically rigorous proof. There would need to be controlled experiments with measurable data to conclusively determine if horses can truly detect autism spectrum disorder.

Without scientific studies, experts say it’s difficult to rule out other explanations for why horses may behave differently around autistic children. Rather than sensing autism itself, horses may simply be responding to behaviors common among autistic children, such as flapping hands, rocking, or speaking in an unusual tone of voice. Horses are highly sensitive prey animals, so they may react to any behaviors they perceive as unusual or alarming.

Experts note that horses appear to mirror the behaviors and emotions of the humans around them. So a calm, patient handler can help an autistic child and horse interact positively. But without controlled experiments, it’s impossible to know if the horse innately senses and understands the child’s autism, or if it is merely responding to the situational cues.

While the anecdotes of special connections are heartwarming, experts advise skepticism until systematic scientific evidence can demonstrate whether horses have a true sixth sense for autism spectrum disorder. More research would be needed before this idea could be confirmed.


Risks of Interactions

While stories of connections between horses and autistic individuals can be heartwarming, it’s important to consider any risks or take precautions around autistic people interacting with these large, powerful animals. Some key things to keep in mind:

  • Horses are unpredictable and have strong fight-or-flight instincts. Sudden noises or movements can startle a horse, causing it to kick, bite, or runoff. This can pose a danger, especially to a child or someone unable to quickly get out of the way.
  • Some autistic behaviors like flapping, shouting, or rocking could frighten or confuse an unfamiliar horse. It’s best to have an experienced handler keep the horse under control during interactions.
  • Autistic children may have difficulty understanding dangers around a horse or reading the animal’s nonverbal cues. They require close adult supervision for safety.
  • Due to sensory issues, some autistic kids want to touch, hit, or climb on a horse in ways that may provoke an aggressive response. Teach appropriate interactions.
  • Make sure the horse has experience around a variety of people and stimuli. An anxious or easily spooked horse is not a good fit.
  • Use gentle, calm horses. High-strung horses are more likely to overreact to an autistic child’s erratic behavior.
  • Ensure the autistic person wears a riding helmet and avoids standing directly behind the horse. Hooves can cause serious injury.

Proper precautions can allow autistic individuals to safely connect with these amazing creatures. But supervision and training on both sides are key.


Advice for Autism-Friendly Interactions

Autistic individuals and their families often find that interacting with horses provides many benefits. While the science is still unclear on whether horses can truly sense autism, here are some tips for safe, positive interactions between autistic people and horses:

  • Work with an experienced instructor or therapist. They can assess the situation, select an appropriate horse, and facilitate the interaction.
  • Choose a calm, gentle horse. High-strung horses are less suitable for autistic riders. Gauge the horse’s temperament before interacting.
  • Approach the horse slowly and calmly. Sudden movements or noises can startle them. Let the horse sniff you before touching or petting it.
  • Consider using a mounting block for getting on the horse. Climbing up from the ground can be challenging or frightening for some.
  • Go at the pace that feels comfortable for the autistic individual. Don’t rush interactions. Short sessions might work better than long ones.
  • Provide clear verbal cues or guidance as needed. Some autistic people respond better to visual aids like picture cards.
  • Work on basic horse care like grooming and feeding together. These quiet activities can help build a bond.
  • Praise and reward the autistic riders for their efforts and achievements. This positive reinforcement can boost confidence.
  • Make safety the top priority, with helmets and proper footwear. Have an assistant handy just in case.
  • Consider sensory issues like allergies or fears around horses. Gradually introduce sounds, textures, and objects associated with horses.
  • Consult an occupational therapist to identify any precautions needed around motor skills, balance, coordination, or other areas impacted by autism.

With preparation, patience, and the right professional guidance, autistic individuals can safely interact with horses and reap many rewards. Further study is still needed, but anecdotal evidence suggests horses can enrich the lives of many children and adults with autism.



There is no definitive scientific evidence yet that horses can sense autism, but there are many anecdotal reports of horses responding differently and positively to autistic children and adults. Some theorize that horses may be able to pick up on the unique body language and behaviors of those on the autism spectrum through their acute senses. Others propose more mystical explanations about horses having a “sixth sense” to detect neurological differences.

More research is needed through controlled studies to determine if horses can truly detect autism and if so, how they do it. There have been some small preliminary studies, like one from Italy in 2015 that observed horses’ heart rates increased around autistic children compared to neurotypical children. However, more rigorous research is required before concluding.

An area that does have growing scientific evidence is using horses therapeutically for people with autism, called equine therapy. Several studies have found equine activities can help improve social skills, communication, sensory processing, and emotional regulation in autistic individuals. However, the field needs continued research to better understand the mechanisms behind why this approach is beneficial.

While horses may have an uncanny intuition when interacting with autistic people, the claims are still anecdotal without rigorously controlled studies. However, equine therapy remains a promising complementary treatment and further research could unveil exciting discoveries about how horses impact people with autism. More evidence-based insights would allow for safer and more effective therapeutic practices.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *