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Autism: How Horses are Helping - featured April 9, 2010

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Autism: How Horses are Helping

By: L A Pomeroy

Reprinted with the express permission of Holistic Horse as originally published on their website.

After reading Horsepower from Within: How Horses Restore Strength and Spirit and in the latest edition of Holistic Horse, you'll want to know more about these amazing horses and individuals:

Benny the Autistic Horse

Honesty was the unexpected message that (W)hole Horse© trainer, Missy Wryn, received through Benny, a Palomino Paint gelding diagnosed as autistic. Their story began when Wryn was asked to take -- for free -- a 4-H project not working out for its eight year-old owner. “Sure,” she said. “Little did I know that would lead me on a journey of understanding mental illness in horses.”

When Wryn went to get Benny, the property’s owner offered, ‘I’ve got a shot gun if you want it’.” Missy knew Benny’s rescue, seven months earlier by the Humane Society, had left a physical toll, including stringhalt and four sunken coffin bones, but this remark hinted at deeper problems.

“I started working on foot handling and basic ground manners, but Benny would rear and bite. He would flip out when I took him in-hand for a stroll down the road. One day a neighbor stopped to chat and Benny had a melt down. My neighbor was concerned for my safety. I knew Benny was going to be a challenge and needed time to heal.”

Progress was slow. Benny learned to lead more safely, but struggled with boundaries, entering her space without permission, and continuing to bite. “I’d hear his teeth snapping in the air. Whenever I reprimanded him he didn’t seek the comfort of appropriate behavior, as a normal horse would.

“This was puzzling. From my trainer’s point of view, horses are fairly predictable and learn that dangerous behavior doesn’t pan out, so they are willing to adopt appropriate behavior to get along with me as herd leader. Benny could not grasp that language or understand herd communication.”

A PhD child psychologist diagnosed Benny with autistic behavior; an autistic specialist in Wryn’s school district drew a similar conclusion. She began to understand why his behavior had been so atypical.

Benny is now in his late teens and has a barn buddy, Gabe. “Between Gabe and his owner Becky, who is an aromatherapist and Reiki master, Benny has made remarkable strides in normalizing behavior. Gabe is the first horse to consent to mutual grooming with Benny, which encouraged another horse to accept Benny as well. This interaction has been remarkable to witness.”

Benny is now displaying more normal horse behaviors, standing quiet and relaxed next to Wryn during clinics “without needing to roll or holler.” He also loves to be ridden to music. “Benny has been my best teacher and mirror,” Missy claims. “Being authentic is one of the biggest lessons he's taught me.”

Molly

That horses accept us without reproach or guile makes it easier to accept imperfection in others and our selves. The matter-of-fact courage displayed by a three-legged pony named Molly, after Hurricane Katrina, became a healing symbol for scores of Americans.

Molly was an abandoned mare, rescued in the wake of Louisiana’s monster hurricane who, in a cruel twist of irony, lost her foreleg in a dog attack while at the shelter. Successfully outfitted with a prosthetic limb, she is now a therapeutic ambassador, offering amputees, veterans, and nursing homes her nonjudgmental, gentle inspiration.

“A lot of people I met through Molly never had any expectation of an uplifting experience from a horse,” says Fran Jurga, who recounted the pony’s story on her blog, the Jurga Report. In late 2009, Molly received the Courage Award from the Barbaro Foundation, and will have her own pavilion and title, Official World Equestrian Games Ambassador, when the Kentucky Horse Park hosts the international competition in 2010. Her book, Molly The Pony: A True Story, was adopted by the Shriners’ Library as suggested reading by young trauma victims.

“She’s ultra quiet and calm. Molly has brought common people – not just horse lovers – together. Her story teaches diversity and accepting people for who they are.

“She does great at schools, but her presence is very powerful at nursing homes. When Molly ‘does her thing’ it can have a very moving effect. She won’t necessarily go to people reaching out to her but will find the least likely candidate, the one who is least communicative, and will insist on getting a response.

“She’s amazing. We can’t explain why she picks whom she does, but she is an incredible therapy pony, and has made me more open to the emotional aspects of horses.”

Breaking Free of Prison

Susan Domizzi, who works with horses and autistic children, has said, “It is wonderful to see children connect with something outside the prison of their mind.”

Mental prisons are not the only ones where horses have helped people break free. The Colorado Wild Horse Inmate Program serves a dual healing purpose: giving wild mustangs and incarcerated men hope for a better future.

When mustangs from California were taken in by the Mustang Heritage Foundation, as part of a project under the federal Bureau of Land Management to increase adoption of wild horses, inmate Lonnie Aragon, who had served eight years of a 24-year sentence at a Canon City, Colorado, prison for aggravated robbery, was selected for its wild horse program and Trainers Challenge at the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo.

He was paired with a buckskin gelding he named Chance: “Because the horse gave me a second chance. We’ve both been locked up. Wild horses taught me how I cannot go through life kicking and spurring. You have got to stop and think.”

After 100 days of training, Aragon and Chance parted company, with the once-wild horse ready for his new role on a ranch or in a family barn. “He will change their life with who he is as a horse, just like he changed mine,” Aragon asserts.

At Aragon’s parole hearing, a nearby equestrian center manager who had witnessed the transformation from prisoner to horseman, testified on his behalf. Aragon earned an early release from prison and a job at the center, where he can share his love of horses with his daughter.

Good Hope

Hard evidence on the healing effects of horses may soon be available, following research conducted by Good Hope Equestrian Training Center in Miami, Florida. In November 2008 it was awarded funding by the Horses and Humans Research Foundation to evaluate the effects of equine interaction on 7- to 12-year-old children diagnosed with autism.

“To date,” say the Good Hope team, “there have been few studies that have shown animal-assisted activities benefit the cognitive, psychological, and social domains of individuals with developmental disorders. Equine-assisted activities, a sub-type of animal-assisted programs, have been used to treat populations with physical and mental disabilities. We hypothesize that our group, exposed to 12 weeks of equine-assisted activities, will exhibit improvement in social functioning and attention (and) provide evidence that equine-assisted activities are a viable option in treating children with autism.”

Good Hope reports that preliminary results “appear promising” and has observed improvement in the physical, cognitive, social and emotional wellbeing of more than 600 children, youth and adults participating in equine-related programs.

“It seems the bonding between horse and participant facilitates a relaxed, emotional shift that promotes self-awareness, confidence, communication and learning. Physically, the horse’s natural gait exactly duplicates the vestibular motion of the human walk – side-to-side, forward, and up-and-down. The horse is a multi-sensory tool that can assist the autistic rider in integrating the senses and better understanding how the body relates to external forces. The non-judgmental feature of the equine creates a bond with another living being, which is especially difficult for autistic children to achieve.”

EAGALA

The Equine-Assisted Growth and Learning Association founded in 1999 to address the need for resources, education, and professionalism in Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) and Equine Assisted Learning (EAL) is often asked, "Why horses?"

Because, EAGALA explains, “Horses are like humans in that they are social animals. They have defined roles within herds. They would rather be with their peers. They have distinct personalities and moods. An approach that seems to work with one does not necessarily work with another. At times, they seem stubborn and defiant. They like to have fun.

“In other words, horses provide opportunities for metaphorical learning. Using metaphors, in discussion or activity, is an effective technique when working with even the most challenging individuals or groups.

“Most importantly, horses mirror exactly what human body language is telling them. Many people will complain, "The horse is stubborn. The horse doesn’t like me," etc. But the lesson to be learned is that, if they change themselves, the horses respond differently. Horses are honest, which makes them powerful messengers.”

Our Featured Organization: Holistic Horse

L.A. Pomeroy has more than two decades’ experience in equestrian sports, from FEI to rodeo, rare breeds and equine zoology, to fine art and history. She grew up in the Catskills near one of North America’s only Przewalski herds, has photographed Chincoteague ponies, and, after graduating summa cum laude from Johnson & Wales University with a degree in Equine Business, worked for USET public relations, later overseeing Equestrian Press for the 1996 Olympic Games, and serving as contributing editor for Mike Plumb’s Horse Journal. She joined the Holistic Horse family in 2007.

In 2008, L.A.’s feature work earned her a USEF Pegasus Awards nomination, American Horse Publications Annual Awards Honorable Mention, and praise from AHP judges for tackling a topic “that needed a story” -- equine breast and ovarian cancer -- published in Holistic Horse.

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