by Cat Rimbach, staff writer
Rowan was six years old when he escaped and ran to his neighbor’s pasture filled with a herd of mares. The leader of the herd was always angry and often aggressive, her reaction to this severely autistic boy running to her and laying down under her was something Rowan’s father would never have predicted. She moved in to protect Rowan as if he were her own foal.
His father, Rupert, was filled with delight as he could finally get back into horses after having given them up for the safety of his son. It revived the hope he had for progress with his son as well. They went back many times to visit that mare and though Rowan was nonverbal, he made it very clear with his body language that he wanted to sit on top of the horse.
Rupert raised Rowan up and Rowan threw himself back so he could lay down on her and watch the clouds. Rupert said he’d never seen his son relax like that before. The electromagnetic field of the mare’s heart seemed to comfort Rowan in a way nothing had in the past. Her energy allowed him space to relax.
Equine therapy is an incredibly effective way to provide a safe space for people with all different types of struggles in their lives. It helps those that may have physical disabilities such as amputations, paralysis, spina bifida, it also helps with neuro diagnoses like PTSD, anxiety, depression, and autism. It’s truly a therapy for everyone that needs a safe place and for whom talk therapy has proven to be unhelpful.
The idea of equine therapy is to get people outdoors and in touch with nature while moving and following their individual desires or boundaries. Equine therapy does not always require a person to ride the horse, it can involve just brushing the horses or saddling them up or simply just observing them in a field; it is catered to the individual.
Riding the horses does have its benefits though. The riding aspect is based on the rhythmic rocking motion of the hips, being on a horse allows this to happen naturally in order to relax the psoas muscle which is directly connected to the vagus nerve to the brain and produces oxytocin in your brain. This hormone produces happy ‘warm and fuzzy’ feelings benefitting anyone who produces it.
After Rupert had that first experience with Rowan he decided to conduct more research; he’s a journalist so research and writing is what he does. He reached out to Robert Navio, a biologist at San Diego University, asking why exactly his son experienced such relaxation around the mare. Navio said it “makes total sense. You tapped into defusing the cell danger response” and instead tapped into producing oxytocin.
The cell danger response is the ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ reflex that displays itself during high-stress situations, which for many autistic children is all the time. So Rupert began the development of his own equine therapy method called HorseBoy. Rupert visited a professor in Fort Collins by the name of Temple Grandin who is also autistic. She is very successful and so Rupert essentially asked her ‘how does my son become you?’ She responded with three main factors to helping autistic children thrive: have the kid move, be out in nature, and follow intrinsic motivation. So this became the basis of HorseBoy.
Besides HorseBoy there are many different programs in the world, available in over thirty countries. There are also many different techniques within equine therapy depending on each person and what their main struggle is.
Specifically for small children programs will refer to therapy dates as ‘playdates’ so a child doesn’t feel as though they are going to weekly therapy and they can enjoy the time as an afternoon of fun.
There is also an approach called back-riding particularly for younger clients, a volunteer rider will put the child in front of them and put pressure on the psoas muscle where the hips are, for stability and deep pressure release. This is safely done on ‘bombproof’ horses that have been trained to be able to suppress their flight instinct around loud noises or unpredictable children.
For veterans, the volunteers will teach them a breathing technique called heartmath breathing which is sort of a physical meditation that can calm down a rush in high adrenaline situations. Another popular approach is simply going on horseback rides with an experienced rider volunteer. Since the volunteer remains beside or behind the client, it becomes easier for them to open up without the pressure of direct eye contact and face to face therapy. On and off the horse the basic concepts of these techniques have been proven very successful in many peoples’ lives.
Bianca Rimbach saw these techniques improve her relationship with her students in her fifth grade class, one in particular.
A few years ago she became overwhelmed with teaching. She worked at a low income school and had thirty kids placed in her class. Of those thirty kids twenty-nine had various diagnoses such as anxiety, migraines, violent tendencies, and of those twenty-nine children seven of them had autism.
One was severely autistic- nonverbal and aggressive, his name was Jiovanni. For some reason Bianca just could not connect with him and she stated that “as a teacher the one thing you really need to do is connect to every student,” so when she couldn’t connect with him she felt burned out.
Her friend recommended she go to a HorseBoy training before she put in her letter of resignation, so she did. She learned the three main points (get the child moving, get them outside, and follow their interests) and then applied them in her classroom. After that she saw remarkable changes in Jiovanni including behavioral changes and becoming more vocal with her about his needs. She had even convinced him and his family to visit her for horse therapy which lasted for three years and she saw continuous improvement throughout. She decided not to quit and the experience changed her life and skills forever.
The effects of horse therapy or the techniques used in these programs are truly life altering and promote positive progress in everyone’s life.