The cost was fuel for the drive (through some of the most beautiful countryside in the US of A), and $10 USD (easily purchased via PayPal!) each to attend the workshop. It was totally worth every bit of the time and money we invested.
Because Debi and her therapy team offer so much to learn and do in these workshops, I decided to present the information in several posts, and incorporate them into one of my favorite flashPress series, FarmaCOPEia, which is an array of information on alternative medicines and therapies.
This first one covers some effective help and therapy available for folks and their loved ones living with the challenges of autism.
But, before the Q & A, meet Debi!
Debi O’Brien has been interacting with horses for as long as she can remember, and riding since she was eight-years-old. Endeavoring to put her great love for horses and healthcare to work, she blended them into her collegiate focus, and has since achieved bringing her dream into a reality.
In 2006 she graduated with a A.A.S. in Equine Management from Parkland College in Champaign, Illinois. Later, she received her B.A. in Counseling Psychology, with an emphasis in Equine Assisted Mental Health, from Prescott College in Arizona, 2009.
From there, she ventured to Eponaquest, an internationally recognized, equine facilitated, experiential learning, instructor training program. In 2013 she graduated as an Eponaquest Instructor.
In this post, she’s going to lend her knowledge and experience focusing on the wonderful, therapeutic interaction horses can have with those who have autism.
Here we go...
❥What are some of the ways folks with autism can benefit from interaction with horses?
Horses have a very calming presence for people with autism, who tend to display a decrease in hyperactivity once interacting with a horse. This, in part, is due to the horse’s ability to be in the present moment, as well as the action of petting an animal which releases oxytocin and serotonin, also decreases folks blood pressure and cortisol levels.
Horseback riding creates many sensory-sensations due to the natural way of movement for a horse, and how that movement transfers through the rider's body; clients love to trot because of the faster, heavier foot-fall of a horse. It seems to awaken the sympathetic nervous system. Petting, using grooming brushes, the feel of the saddle, etcetera, provides new sensory touch opportunities for clients as well.
Clients with autism also benefit from learning group-participation, and dynamic play with horses. They begin to develop a connection and relationship with their horse, and are more willing to include them into group activities and interact with the horse. We include games on the ground, or under saddle, to encourage sharing, speech, reasoning and decision making. One of the favorite activities is horse soccer or bowling. The clients are amazed that a horse can kick a ball and play soccer with them!
Horses, and other animals, speak to us with their body language. This is sometimes easier for those with autism to read and comprehend, rather than the verbal communication we primarily communicate with. Being able to read a horse's body language is important for safety, learning how to appropriately express emotion, and bonding. This can carry over into being able to read human body language and emotional responses easier.
❦ Are there specific behaviors/tendencies/challenges (such as anxiety, aggression, low self-esteem) in which equine therapy is effective to help people with autism overcome, or decrease their effects?
To know that you are responsible for caring for your horse each week, and give the horse various directions to which they respond to, provides a great boost in confidence, self esteem and independence. If you can imagine being able to ask a 1,000 pound animal to “Go...” or “Stop...” and care for a horse by brushing, bathing, and feeding it, there’s a great deal of responsibility that is learned.
By caring for their horse each week, clients learn appropriate self-care, and care for others. This also builds an emotional connection, and exercises compassion and empathy for others. Self-care can be a challenge for those with autism because they like routine and familiar items.
In order to work safely around horses, clients must learn to control impulses such as loud noises or fast movements that may startle a horse. This can include emotional control as well, for example expressing frustration or aggression appropriately without lashing out at the horse or others. For those experiencing anxiety, learning how to work through it, with deep breaths and sticking to a routine, can be beneficial for regulating emotions.
Some two-way therapy... (yes, she's wearing a pony-tail holder, compliments of Emma)
My sister's rescued mare, Touching Fire (pictured with our friends, Nate and Emma) is over 30-years-old. Due to some health trouble, she's recently been moved to our back yard. My family quickly put together a small (but well-fitted corral) and a few days later (not shown in the pic) some friends helped us build her a new, very roomy stable. Fire's settled in and responding beautifully to the attention she's getting from friends who come by to interact with her. She's eating well, being groomed often, enjoying a variety of healthy treats from a growing, local fan club, and even going for walks through the village. She's once again thriving and no longer exhibiting signs of depression.
Nate, Emma and others, get as much benefit from their time with Fire as Fire does from their attention.
❦ Will you share a few examples of activities that can be incorporated into this type of therapy?
Some activities we have incorporated include horse soccer, obstacle courses for the horse and rider to navigate through together, storytelling and playing it out with the horse and others, games on horseback that work on balance, such as squirt gun target practice, placing rings over poles, and playing catch.
❦ Can clients/patients expect to experience changes/results quickly?
With some clients we will notice a change quite quickly. Just the change in environment from our meeting room to the aisle with the horse, I have witnessed more relaxed, focused, and on-task behaviors. Other aspects, such as speech, can take a bit longer to see the changes. Often times, if the client is really connecting with the horse, they begin to speak with less prompting because they want to walk, trot, brush, pet the horse, due to their bond with the horse.
❦ Barring allergies, what sort of clients with autism would not be a good match for equine therapy?
Clients with a decreased ability for impulse control and who have difficulty following directions, primarily for safety reasons around the horses.
❦ What can clients with autism and their caregiver(s), expect to happen during their first visit to Equine Lead?
For an equine therapy session, clients can expect to meet with their therapist and I as the horse-handler. We typically begin in a meeting room at the barn, setting goals and the general tasks for the client’s session that day. Afterwards, we transition into the aisle-way where their horse is waiting in a stall.
The client asks for their horse to come out, and assists the horse-handler in cross tying the horse. The therapist, handler and client work together to get the horse ready for riding which includes brushing and saddling, then after the client gets themselves ready (helmet and gate belt), we walk into the arena where the client opens the gait for their horse, then waits at the mounting block to ride.
Once on the horse, the session develops from checking balance and posture first, followed by activities that incorporate the goals and tasks discussed at the beginning of the session.
My thanks to Debi for her time and valuable input into this post. We've only presented one of many aspects of how she and her team function at Equine LEAD. Speaking of her team, here are a few you're likely to meet if you visit their farm.
Nee and I had the privilege of getting acquainted with these three, Reba, Apollo and Moon Shine. We became instant fans and thoroughly enjoyed our time working with them.
Also available from Equine LEAD...
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That's it for this one!
God bless you, thanks so for the read and hope to see you back again next week!
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