They come to the barn with burdens no child should have to bear. Some children are ill and some have been injured, while others are completely overwhelmed by family circumstances beyond their control. Many are incapacitated by mental or physical impairments that prevent them from fully experiencing the joys of childhood.
I have been a therapeutic riding volunteer for many years, working with a wide range of children, from autistic and physically handicapped riders, to kids with attention deficit and behavioral challenges. I have also worked with kids who just want to get outside and ride. No matter what brings them to the barn, it’s not long before riders begin to experience the truly transformative power of the horse/human connection.
Imagine you’re a child again and mounting a horse for the first time. For any child it takes a great deal of courage. Some of these kids are barely able to sit upright without help. Other children are bombarded with an overload of sensory stimuli that they are unable to sort out on their own. Still others are truly afraid, asked to place their trust in a horse when they haven’t been able to count on the humans in their lives, let alone a 1000-pound animal with feet the size of saucers. But, step-by-step, their fear turns to fascination and infirmity is replaced by an unseen strength that coaxes them to sit a little taller and experience the world from a new vantage point.
The sensory reinforcement of a trail ride on horseback is so powerful that children with learning disabilities often respond in ways that cannot be accomplished in any other setting. As they ride through the fields and into the woods, many of these children become keenly aware of their surroundings and are able to fully engage in the natural world all around them for the first time. They will turn to notice a tiny goldfinch perched on a thistle plant and recite the word “yellow”. They may listen to the sound of their horse’s feet on a wooden bridge and count to five. Many children will close their eyes and smile as they feel a warm breeze on their faces… all seemingly small steps, but milestones in their journey toward self-awareness, understanding and expression.
It is unclear how the horse/human relationship came to be. However, one thing is clear, horses have been helping humans for thousands of years. The partnership between man and horse has had a tremendous impact on the societal evolution of our species. While we generally think of evolution in terms of human advancement with little regard for the journey of other species, our history on earth is relatively short compared to that of the horse. Surprisingly, Equus caballus, the ancient ancestor of the modern horse, has been evolving for fifty-five million years compared to the one million years that humans have been walking the planet.
Is it possible they have lessons to teach us? Take a horseback ride along a wooded trail and you’ll know immediately that it’s a lesson about shared experience between human and horse — sharing the moment and sharing the natural world all around you.
And what is it about the nature of a horse that evokes such emotional responses in people? I’ve asked myself the same question a million times. I have worked with horses since I was a young girl and have experienced first hand their restorative abilities. I have a shelf lined with books on the subject and journals filled with notes. The incidents of horses healing humans are not isolated, they’re commonplace. And its not just horses… Ask our soldiers in the Middle East about the bonds they’ve developed with service dogs that have stood beside them despite terrible conditions. Some will tell you that these animals have even saved their lives.
South African veterinarian and researcher Johannes Odendaal has written extensively on the topic and paved the way for greater acceptance of the healing power of animals. His premise is that all humans need attention on a basic emotional level for successful social interactions. Odendaal believed that the successful use of a companion animal was most commonly found among people who were unable to connect with other humans in meaningful and fulfilling ways. His research has shown that substituting animal for human is the basis of animal therapy. Further research has proven that significant chemical changes occur in the brains of both human and animal during these interactions. In the fast-paced world we live in today, this form of therapy may become invaluable as the demographic of people who are unable (or unwilling) to communicate in “meaningful and fulfilling ways” increases to include a broader segment of the population than Odendaal ever envisioned.
Animal therapy provides interesting insights into the back-to-nature movement that is gaining momentum around the world. The authentic nature of the horse gives kids permission to respond with similar authenticity, allowing for non-judgmental companionship and the freedom to express true emotions that often transcend speech. The process of trial-and-error with a willing and animated companion is an excellent way for children to learn about appropriate behaviors, responsibility and sensitivity to others in the animal and the human world. This type of interaction is one clear example of the lessons nature can teach us about life.
It is virtually impossible for me to condense all of my thoughts on equine therapy into a single blog, so more to come at a later date.
In the meantime, if you’re looking for a fun activity to get your kids outside and active, consider signing them up for riding lessons or go for a family trail ride. You may connect with nature in ways you never thought possible!