Children with autism and attention deficit disorder often struggle to communicate – but put them with horses and they can achieve so much.
Therapeutic horseback riding is the use of horses and equine-assisted activities in order to achieve goals that enhance physical, emotional, social, cognitive, behavioural and educational skills. It not only focuses on therapeutic riding skills but also the development of a relationship between horse and rider.
Horses provide a unique neuromuscular stimulation when being ridden through their one of a kind movement. Horses move in a rhythmic motion and promote strength, balance, coordination, flexibility and confidence.
In addition to the movement experienced when riding, tactile senses are also stimulated. The horse’s skin is fuzzy, the main and tail are rough, and the horse’s nose is wonderfully soft. Discovery of these sensations often help to draw a child out, stimulating development of their verbal communication and interest in other physical objects. Motor skills are developed as the child learns to ride, groom and tack.
These new skills enhance self- confidence, which, in turn increases the desire to learn other skills at home or at school. Eventually, learning can become fun, interesting and rewarding. Many children also experience improvements in their overall moods.
Children who previously experienced angry outbursts or who rarely smiled can become calmer. Often they begin making eye contact — perhaps for the first time — with the horse, then with other people. While the idea of the benefits of therapeutic horseback riding might be relatively new, horses have been used as a therapeutic aid since the ancient Greeks first used them for those who had incurable illnesses.
And in the 17th century, horse riding was prescribed for gout, neurological disorder and what was termed then as “low morale” The therapeutic riding techniques used today began in 1952 with a Dutch woman whose legs were paralysed from polio. With the therapy, Liz Hartel went on to win the silver medal for dressage in that year’s Olympic Games.
Child Vision Ireland, the National Educational Centre for Blind Children have an extensive programme of Therapeutic Horse Riding, and say that children with a wide range of disabilities respond in a unique way that means their individual therapy goals can often be met more swiftly and efficiently than through the more traditional methods in a clinical setting.
Child Vision is currently working with Rupert Isaacson, horse trainer, filmmaker, founder of the Horseboy Method, and author of the best-selling book, “Horse Boy”, the story of an incredible journey across Mongolia to visit traditional shamans in search of healing for Rowan, his autistic son. Rupert will be reading from his second book “The Long Ride Home” at the Bantry Literary Festival.
He will be introduced and assisted by Bantry woman Sandra Schmidt, who also runs a therapeutic riding programme, and whose trained horses will be used in a demonstration on the Horse Boy method given by Rupert on July 12.
“I’m really looking forward to meeting Rupert and seeing him work,” Sandra says. “It’s a great opportunity to learn more about his techniques.” On July 13, Rupert will be at the St Joseph’s Foundation in Charleville, where he will give another demonstration of his unique methods.
Rupert, currently at his ranch in Texas, told me about his deep love for his son, their amazing journeys and his passion for spreading word of the techniques which have yielded such positive results for so many.
Q. Rupert, I understand that a year after you came back from that extraordinary and successful journey on horseback across Mongolia, Rowan began to regress. That must have been shattering.
A. It was. But it wasn’t a complete surprise because the last shaman that we met in Mongolia told me that we would have to make three more journeys. So we started on a new quest, which took us to the Bushmen of Namibia, the coastal rainforests of Queensland in Australia and the Navajo reservations in the southwest.
Q. The Horse Boy Foundation has gone from strength to strength in recent years and now you teach these techniques you have developed all over the world.
A. Yes we train many people in the Horse Boy techniques and run courses here at the ranch. While I am obviously a great believer in traditional methods of healing, what we do is also based on a great deal of scientific research. We have found that if you take care of the siblings and the parents of a child with autism as well as the child themselves, the impact on that families’ life can be significant. Clinicians have also focused more on the entire family recently. We’ve trained over a thousand practitioners including Tracy Piggott who came here to the ranch.
Q. I’m wondering how you find the time for all the travelling, the teaching, the books and the filmmaking.
A. You somehow find the time to do what has to be done. And what we do gives me a lot of joy. Every day is an adventure. And having Rowan, caring for him is the best thing that ever happened to me. Autism is just fine. When we were coming back from the Navajo reservation visit we were all a bit tired and cranky after so much travelling. And Rowan, who was not very verbal, kept repeating that he wanted this fizzy coloured drink in a way that was annoying me. I told him to stop being so grumpy. Then all of a sudden he said, “Dad, I’m not being grumpy. I’m telling you what drink I want” as clearly as that.
Q. That must have been amazing.
A. It was — an extraordinary and moving moment for me, a turning point. And since then Rowan has gone on to start his own venture, which he has called ‘Endangerous’. It’s a web-based TV show that shows what autistic kids are capable of. For his first project, he wanted to go on a trip to Bulgaria to study brown bears. Now he is responsible for the content of the show and he has so many great ideas. We want to reach out beyond the special needs community into family entertainment, to help ‘normalise’ perceptions of special needs.
Q. You are reading from ‘The Long Ride Home’, the story of your most recent journey at the Bantry Literary Festival and giving two demonstrations of your techniques in Charleville and Bantry Are you looking forward to it?
A. “Yes, it’s always lovely being in Ireland. I’ll be reading at the Maritime Hotel at 2:30 on July 11 and giving demonstration of the Horse Boy method in Bantry on July 12, and in Charleville on July 13.
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