DUBAI // Children with development disorders and autism are overcoming their problems by riding horses.
Studies show animal-assisted therapy can help such muscular conditions and improve social skills.
A riding programme at Dubai Police's stables has now been launched by Dubai Police and the Community Development Authority (CDA).
One of the children who attends, Moza Sultan Al Marri, 3, has found her feet after just three months.
Her parents first became concerned about her development when she still could not crawl by nine months. But instead of traditional treatments, they were keen to try horse therapy because riding can improve low muscle tone.
"Horse riding can shape the motor, social, cognitive and communication skills," said Hazem Mousa, senior physical therapist at the CDA, who works with 12 children for an hour every week.
"When Moza started she could not sit on the horse and required full support. Now she can crawl and has also started side-walking."
There are few formal animal-assisted treatment programmes but those there are report an increasing demand for their services.
And while little research has been done on the long-term effects of such therapy, parents report immediate results.
Moza's mother, Alia, sat patiently at the end of the paddock smiling while her daughter was riding.
"I have noticed a big difference in her communication and behaviour," she said. "Even her posture has improved, this is a great achievement."
Animal therapy programmes in the US and UK have noted numerous benefits, including improved social skills. A study of 40 families by French researchers last year found that children who were given a pet at the age of 4 were better at sharing and comforting people in distress - a challenge for most youngsters with autism.
The CDA's horse programme is based on the concepts of hippotherapy, a technique used to help people with neurological disorders.
Children above the age of 3 start by getting acquainted with a horse, followed by a 15-minute ride then structured activities such as sorting colours and shapes.
"The pelvic movement of the rider is the same as the pelvic movement of a human walking," explained Mr Mousa, with the repetitive movement helping their motor skills.
At the Riding for the Disabled Association of Dubai, manager Caroline Joyce Semar said they had 55 children in their programme and many more on their waiting list.
"We are seeing a lot of interest in hippotherapy because parents are seeing visible results in their children's social skills," she said.
One parent who vouches for the benefits of equine therapy is Irem Alam. Her teenage daughter's development is delayed but her social skills and confidence have soared since she started riding.
"On the days she goes riding, Sara is a different person," said Ms Alam, who takes her to Hoofbeatz, an equestrian centre, every week.
Sara is now comfortable around people and can give instructions to the horse, which translates into interacting better into social settings. "It's very motivating for her and has helped her communicate better," Ms Alam said.
Swimming with dolphins also helps, and youngsters from the Dubai Autism Centre and Abu Dhabi Special Care Centre visit the Dubai Dolphinarium. Alexander Zani, a marine mammal specialist at the venue, said: "The dolphins' smooth skin and shape provides a calming effect," said Mr Zani. "Children explore with their fingers and even the most reclusive child begins to open up. Swimming with dolphins has been very successful for children with cerebral palsy and autism."
The dolphinarium hopes to start structured dolphin therapy classes.