How the powerful, rhythmic motion of the carefully trained horse heals us all
While scientists are well on their way to actually proving that working with horses offers real medical value, there already is an incredible amount of anecdotal evidence that horses do actually help us heal.
Take the Horse Boy Method — an approach that did not begin with neurologists and educational psychologists but by chance in 2004 when Horse Boy founder Rupert Isaacson’s autistic toddler had darted away, barreling directly toward a neighbor’s herd of grazing horses. Isaacson stood frozen, terrified. He was afraid his son would be trampled and injured — a fear even greater than the day-to-day stress of caring for a child who was nearly nonverbal, threw endless tantrums and seemed tightly locked in his own autistic world.
Then the response of one horse changed everything. Forever. The mare lowered her head toward the boy and gently protected him from the rest of the herd in what Isaacson, a lifelong horseman, saw as clear submission and understanding. That moment, along with Isaacson’s willingness to watch and follow the cues of horses and his own child, led him to a series of discoveries that has changed the lives of autistic children and families worldwide. Those discoveries have evolved into two books, an award-winning documentary film, a therapeutic center in Texas and the development of curriculum to support children as they learn both in and out of the classroom. Now the benefits of Isaacson’s remarkable, research-based methods are available free of charge to families in the Roaring Fork Valley at Carbondale’s Smiling Goat Ranch.
The science behind why the Horse Boy Method works can be summed up based on the observations of researchers in the fields of autism, human development, trauma and education:
1. Stress impairs learning. The activated amygdala releases cortisol as part of the flight/fight/freeze response. The presence of this stress hormone in the brain serves a purpose when we perceive a threat but it also inhibits other functions of the brain, including long- and short-term learning. Researchers have long known that one of the brain differences in people with autism is an overactive amygdala.
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2. Feeling safe maximizes the potential for learning. Just as the brain produces hormones to spur a response to stress, it also produces hormones that promote feelings of safety, security and pleasure. A brain in this state has the highest possible capacity for learning, innovation and long-term memory. The primary hormone that serves this purpose is oxytocin, which is released when a mother rocks her infant or when a person experiences the rocking motion of riding a specially trained horse.
3. Movement promotes learning. The cerebellum, which is the part of the brain primarily responsible for motor control, is directly connected to the prefrontal cortex, which enables decision-making and emotional control. Activating the cerebellum through moving the body maximizes the potential of the prefrontal cortex to learn and to regulate emotions.
Many autistic people are often caught in a cycle in which the effects of these brain systems and processes have malfunctioned, thus inhibiting learning, language development and meaningful progress. The Horse Boy Method seeks to disrupt this dysfunctional cycle by providing the child with the powerful and rhythmic motion of the carefully trained horse.
Of course, the young children who come to Smiling Goat Ranch don’t know about any of that. They just know that riding with an adult volunteer on one of the ranch’s four special horses is fun. In many people, it produces euphoric laughter, a release of words and a calm, flexible state of mind. Children who barely speak are soon directing the travel of the horse with verbal commands, leading games on horseback and even learning a variety of academic and social concepts as they ride. As the limitations of autism become less prominent, the unique and amazing qualities and abilities of the child finally have a chance to shine.
If you are beginning to think that the Horse Boy Method might benefit people who are not autistic, you are not alone. The entire family of the child with autism attends sessions at the ranch. Parents and siblings see how autism opens doors to new experiences and possibilities rather than close them. The family receives some respite from the challenges of helping their child navigate the often stressful outside world by spending time in an environment where their child can safely play and explore. Many family members notice positive changes in their own mood, level of hope and ability to learn.
This effect is so dramatic that Smiling Goat Ranch is preparing to serve populations with similar debilitating brain conditions: veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. The benefits of working with animals has been well-established for veterans and others suffering from the effects of trauma. Now, the horse-driven motion that helps the autistic child helps these people in the same way. In turn, the volunteers who come to help at Smiling Goat learn and grow through meeting and knowing people who struggle with these challenges and by working with the animals who so gracefully contribute their own motion and other healing qualities.
Smiling Goat Ranch will host its first annual autism awareness walk Sunday in Carbondale. Everyone is welcome to walk as much as they choose with contributions to benefit the ranch encouraged. Participants who are able to contribute $100 by the day of the walk will receive a free T-shirt. A party at Smiling Goat Ranch will follow beginning at 4 p.m. Come check us out and feel the magic for yourself. Visit http://www.facebook.com/smilinggoatranch for more information.
Sheryl Barto is the executive director of Smiling Goat Ranch, an affiliate of the Horse Boy, based in Carbondale. Smiling Goat uses horses, goats, dogs and rabbits to help people with autism and veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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