Hot dust swirled around my feet and slowly baked into my dry skin. Tramp, tramp, tramp. Together, horse hooves and human feet rounded the dirt path once again.
For several summers during my teen years, I volunteered in a therapeutic riding program as a sidewalker…circling endlessly around and around an open arena, calming and steadying the rider while an instructor worked through a program engineered to do the most good for the child’s specific needs and disabilities.
Sometimes I took turns leading the horse as well, but I preferred to walk alongside where there was more interaction with the rider and where I could see the way the child’s face lit up at accomplishing a new task.
“Put the rings on this pole,” the instructor would say, handing out the brightly colored donut rings from the stacking rings toy. “Now put them on the horse’s ear. Put the red one there. Reach for it. You can do it. Okay, pat your horse, and thank him.”
Always, as the child was lifted down, he or she would want to be held up to lean on their horse, look in its face, and touch its nose softly. They might shy away from human engagement, but they were always eager to meet and mount up with their horse friends.
What went on there looked like fun and games, and for any other child it might have been. But for these special needs’ riders, or even the teens who came in with emotional and behavioral issues, it was a chance to learn to interact and socialize before a safe audience – not directed at another person who might judge or test their short temper, but a mute beast who staidly responds to whatever cues are given. At the same time, perhaps hardly realizing it, they practiced fine motor skills, speech skills, gained confidence, and got a fine a muscular workout.
April is autism awareness month, as a friend with an autistic teenage son has pointed out. Her son, who occasionally rode at Heart’s Desire therapeutic riding center where I once volunteered, is now a student at Southern Reins (southernreins.org) in Nesbit, Mississippi.
Other children and adults who come as students to Southern Reins may have spina bifida, ADHD, Down syndrome, or cerebral palsy. They all come with a physician’s referral, and are given a carefully evaluated, specialized program to determine, along with caregivers, what will be their short and long term goals and capabilities.
“One rider’s goal may be to hold hands with a horse leader and sidewalker while the horse is walking. This may be the first step to holding the reins and having control of the horse,” Sara Bryant, Southern Reins head instructor, told AFA.
When students master a new skill, the impact on their lives ranges as widely as do the lessons assigned to them. Grooming and groundwork interacting with a horse leads them to form a bond and enhance social skills; learning to ride independently boosts physical fitness and self-esteem; incorporating games, simple physical and educational challenges, and participating in group activities breaks down feelings of isolation.
“Therapeutic riding teaches riding skills so that participants can learn to ride and communicate with their horse,” Jill Haag, Southern Reins executive director added. “Horses are incredibly intuitive and generous by nature. They provide biofeedback in a nonverbal way. Learning to understand horse behavior can help people learn how others function in the world and the way their behavior impacts others. It translates to everyday life because of the lasting positive effects it has on a participant’s life skills.”
(Read more about equine assisted programs in AFA Journal, February 2017. - https://afajournal.org/past-issues/2017/february/god-s-quiet-healers/)
Equine assisted therapy is one way to reach a child with autism or some other disability. But you don’t have to go to a specialized center to have a part in such a child’s life. Autism alone affects 1 in 68 children, and the likelihood is you know a child with special needs somewhere close to you. Find a way, however small, that you can serve that child and his or her parents and help open a window into a world of new friendship.