Have you ever looked into a horse’s eyes? Have you stood close enough to hear and feel their breath, and see the mysterious depth of their eyes – all the while seeing the horse looking straight back at you with inquisitive and understanding eyes?
That’s how I felt when we visited our family farm recently for a much needed long-weekend camping trip.
It had been a few years since our last visit and as we drove down the steep and uneven country driveway, the first thing I noticed were the horses in the paddocks. The huge creatures were peaceful as they munched slowly and purposefully on the grass, and apart for the casual flickering of the tail to distract the opportunistic flies, they were content and unphased by the newcomers.
One horse approached and we slowed down. He looked at me and I felt happy for the connection. It was different and deep, unlike my daily connections of late.
When a horse looks at you, really looks at you…
…it feels like they look straight into your soul.
The kids enjoyed the experience too and couldn’t wait to get up close so we parked the car and after saying hello to our fellow “two legged” family we promptly made our way to the horses.
As I approached one of the horses cautiously, holding hands with my two little boys, I was conscious of the size of this familiar creature often seen in books and on the screen. I was also aware of their size and their potential to hurt the small boys flanking my sides, should the horse get spooked for any reason.
I admit it felt somewhat intimidating as a short stature person to be so close to an animal that could unwittingly hurt me, but as I walked closer I noticed how patient the horse was and I got hold of my nerves. He watched me as I approached but didn’t step away – he merely observed the situation.
Even still, as the kids got their own courage and ever so carelessly approached the horse of their own accord, my heart skipped a beat. I worried about my eldest son who struggles to read social situations, and I was worried his quick movements might startle the horse and lead to an unexpected situation. My fears and nerves were allayed.
I watched in wonder as I noticed the horse taking the situation in, without any signs of stress, watching my wild little boys climb the farm gate to get closer as if to nuzzle the horse. It was a quick, unexpected and slightly awkward interaction but the horse held steady.
My eldest son who is soon turning five shows autistics tendencies…
…and since becoming aware of his difficulties we’ve put a lot of time and effort into finding out as much as we can about his unseen condition.
It’s a long and bumpy road, much like the farm road we entered the farm on, and it feels like we are constantly hitting potholes along the way, but this is all part of the journey and we must progress slowly and steady as we play our part in helping him understand his emotions and experiences.
So imagine my surprise when the horse in front of me intrinsically understood my child’s intent and his needs, and stood quietly and calmly waiting for him to quieten and control his impulses without correction or needing to step away.
It was as if this creature understood his underlying experience in a way that I couldn’t – needs that might otherwise be missed by another human being – and without needing anything in return gave itself fully to the moment with no expectation and nothing except mindfulness and presence.
Over the years, a number of people who know our son (let’s call him B) have recommended equine therapy for him. It’s also interesting that my husband dealt with similar difficulties as a child and was lucky enough to own and ride a horse in his youth.
It struck me recently when my husband was describing his relationship with Wattle, there was a much deeper connection than I could understand. It wasn’t the usual human to a pet relationship and he describes Wattle fondly, almost as a family member who was there for him.
You see, when my husband was a child he suffered from petit mal (absence) seizures…
…and Wattle would stand with him until he came out of it.
So as I watched my son at the farm interacting with the horse, I noticed he got up and touched the horse slowly and gently, and patted him intentionally on the long nuzzle very close to the horse’s eyes. The animal looked at him with deep, brown, understanding eyes.
These are of course domesticated horses and I would never attempt this in a wild environment, but it was great to see this animal so accepting of this child it had never met before. That’s the moment that sparked my interest in equine therapy.
I’ve met an equine therapist who speaks worlds of the positive impact of this therapy on special needs children and adults alike. I’ve met the mum of an Asperger boys that swears by the power of this bond. And then, there’s my own husband who experienced learning difficulties as a child and who with a history of petit mal seizures struggled to make friendships, and by a stroke of luck happened to own a horse and benefited immensely from the strong bond with this animal.
It’s something we’ve been considering for B because what I’ve learnt about my child is that it’s indefinably difficult to understand why simple things cause him distress. Even worse is his frustration at the inability to express those experiences and what he needs. It’s a hard road for us as his family as we navigate through his needs, and I wonder how lonely it must feel for him sometimes.
But at this moment with the horse, he wasn’t alone.
This amazing creature looked deeply into my eyes and B’s eyes and understood the situation. The horse was simply calm.
I wonder if this mindfulness and presence is what makes horses such great therapy partners for children and adults with special needs?
The story of the autistic child is one a lifelong developmental condition that affects, among other things, the way a person relates to his or her environment and their interaction with other people. The word spectrum refers to the huge range of difficulties people on the spectrum may experience (Harris, Rebecca. “Adventures in Autism.” Nurture: the voice of the National Union of Associations for Christian Parent-controlled Schools 2016: 10)
The reality is, it’s different for everyone, but one thing we know for sure is that engagement in meaningful activities is essential to the development of autistic and special needs children and sometimes this engagement is reduced in children with these disorders.
In a recent study, seven children with ASD, aged 4–8 years old, were assessed to measure the effect of including a horse in occupational therapy intervention for task engagement. The children showed improvements in engagement, concluding that horses in occupational therapy sessions may be a valuable addition to conventional treatments to increase task engagement of children with ASD. (Llambias, Cecilia, et al. “Equine-Assisted Occupational Therapy: Increasing Engagement for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder.” American Journal of Occupational Therapy 2016: 70.6)
Top 10 benefits of equine therapy for children with autistic tendencies:
- Relaxing tight muscles
- Building muscle strength
- Improving fine motor coordination
- Sharpening hand/eye coordination
- Improvements in Posture and Flexibility
- Improving Communication (improving one’s ability to breathe makes it easier for a person to speak)
- Gaining self-control
- Gaining self-confidence
- Improving concentration
- Improving concentration (especially for those who have difficulty staying on task with activities)
Equine therapy for B
So, the next part of our family journey is looking into different aspects of equine therapy that could help B with his needs, ranging from therapeutic riding, to horsemanship, stable management and human-animal bonding.
I’m looking forward to seeing B get on his horse towards better health and life experiences, and more time in the country for the whole family, simply enjoying everything nature has to offer.
What are your experiences with animal-assisted / equine therapies for special needs children and adults?
We’d love to hear from you – leave a comment below and let’s start the conversation.
Thanks Mindy for your story!