Healing Horses in Somerset
PUBLISHED: 12:59 20 October 2011 | UPDATED: 20:10 20 February 2013
Chantal Bannister explains how Conquest Centre for Disabled Riders iin Somerset is employing the 'Horse Boy' method with impressive results for some riders with Autistic Spectrum Disorder
If someone had told me that a horse could teach a child to talk, I would not have believed it. But two years ago in a book shop, I picked up a book called The Horse Boy by Rupert Isaacson, and that is exactly what it said. It is the story of how horses helped the authors son to overcome aspects of his Autism, including speech and toilet training. Since then I have been lucky enough to witness the changes a horse can make to a child with Autism first-hand, but to get the Norton Fitzwarren-based Conquest Centre For Disabled Riders to that point we had to make some changes ourselves.
Conquest caters for around 180 disabled riders a week, who mostly ride under Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA) so traditional group riding lessons are the most effective way of ensuring as many people as possible benefit from our horses. However, last year we noticed that some riders with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) were becoming withdrawn and frustrated in group lessons. We also noticed that a lot of new riders with ASD struggled to put on a hat and approach a horse within their lesson time. It can be overwhelming for a neuro-typical child, let alone a child who struggles to make sense of the outside world.
Instructors at Conquest have all been trained either by British Horse Society (BHS) or RDA, or both. These wonderful institutions train us to teach riding and horse care in a logical and structured fashion, designed to keep the rider as safe as possible. Both offer a clear framework of achievable goals. In the case of RDA there is also a strong focus on the physical benefits, which are vital for many physically disabled riders. However, for a child with Autism, these traditional approaches can be isolating and confusing, and the goals meaningless.
Luckily, following the popularity of his book, Rupert Isaacson set up a training scheme that would allow instructors to learn the methods that he found to be successful with his son, Rowan. And it has nothing to do with teaching children how to ride! But what it can do is offer the Autistic child a way to relate to the outside world. The horse can literally carry them from their world into ours. You may have to set aside traditional techniques and rules of teaching riding, or even being around a horse. Of course safety is still paramount, but we like the children to feel confident being around the horse, as it is this relationship that can trigger changes.
We try to treat the family as a whole, encouraging siblings and parents to take part. The horse becomes part of their family for a short time. We tend to start with sensory work, which was initially developed to help reduce the neurological trauma experienced by children on the Spectrum, but also helps to reduce stress in other family members. This involves getting on the horse bare-back while someone else holds the lead rope. After a few minutes of sitting, we encourage riders to lean forwards and hug the horse, and then backwards, opening their solar plexus. Parents often become emotional during this process and, if they need to, this is when the tears come. As an instructor, sometimes you need the courage to do nothing. We are often taught to coach, encourage, manage and discuss, but during this sensory work we become bystanders and allow unseen communication to take place between the horse and rider.
Another powerful tool that makes up part of Horse Boy Method is back-riding (where the instructor rides with the child in front of them). The rocking motion of the horse is thought to open learning receptors in the brain. Combine that with the deep pressure of being held, and the instructors voice in the childs ear, and you have an optimum environment for learning and communication. What you havent got is the child being faced with eye contact, or having to try and determine facial expressions, both of which can be distracting and worrying. In a
non-verbal child, this technique can help to start communication, be it copying noises, signing, whistling, laughing or even first words (cue more tears from parents and instructors!)
There are other Horse Boy Method techniques, such as teaching academic subjects on horseback and playing rule-based games such as tag, which we use once a child is comfortable with the idea of being on a horse. These activities can be easily incorporated into RDA group lessons, whereas sensory work and back-riding is done separately.
Although the Horse Boy Method does not work for every child, and it certainly is not a cure for Autism, so far it has been very useful for us. We still teach 180 riders a week in RDA group lessons, we just have more tools now to help reach children with ASD. As a riding centre, we are at the beginning of what we hope will be a long and successful journey using these methods. As an instructor, it is a privilege to spend time with these children. They teach us more than we can ever teach them. U
To find out more about Horse Boy UK including method training, camps, books and dvds go to horseboycamps.co.uk or for details about able-bodied or disabled riding, including RDA at Conquest Centre for Disabled Riders go to conquestcentre.org.uk