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Where Healing Begins!
Autism therapy
from Dressage Today February 2010 article titled The Horse Boy How the father of an autistic boy uses horses and dressage to reach his child We all know that dressage has many surprises. Three months of tap-tapping at my horse’s back legs to get those first piaffe steps in-hand and then, just on the off-chance, I decided to risk asking for the first step while mounted. So of course, the laws of dressage being what they are, I got something else - terre-a-terre. “Ok,” I said, laughing, “I’ll go with that; terre-a-terre it is then!” I wasn’t the only one laughing. So was my son, who sat in the saddle with me - my autistic son, Rowan. I used to think there was some kind of dividing line between therapeutic riding and “real” riding. I used to think I even knew what real riding was. I used to think I knew a lot of things. That, as we know, can be human problem with riding. We often kind of use horses to project our own egos. Horses are generous that way - too generous perhaps. Yet, sometimes, that generosity manifests in the most miraculous way. It certainly did for me, and it changed my relationship with horses forever. But let’s start at the beginning. In April 2004, Rowan was diagnosed with autism. My reaction was typical - grief and shame, this weird irrational shame that I had somehow caused my child by giving him my faulty genetics. Life shut down.  I stopped riding - the most important thing in my life - partly as a reaction to my grief, partly in fear. I assumed that my tantrumming, almost spastically hyperactive son was unsafe around horses. So, I kept him - and therefore myself - away from the animals that have always meant so much to me, and I suffered the inevitable depression that follows when you give up something you love. I started drinking too much, putting on weight, spiraling down mentally. It wasn’t good. Betsy Then, one day, something extraordinary happened. Rowan had always been calmer when he is in nature, so I used to walk the trails behind our house near Austin, Texas, with him every day, or at least wander along behind as he leapt, ran and yelled his way around the woodlands. Then, one day, he suddenly went unexpectedly through the underbrush and, before I could grab him, through the fence and into my neighbor’s horse pasture. To my horror, he then threw himself right under the hooves of the boss mare of the herd - Betsy, a notoriously grumpy old Quarter Horse. I thought he was going to be trampled. Instead, Betsy did something amazing. She bent her head low and began to lick and chew, the equine gesture of happy submission. My 2 1/2-year-old autistic boy lay on his back in the grass babbling up at her. Now, like most horsey parents, my idea of how a child would learn to ride was based on how I was taught myself: pedagogically (i.e. someone standing on the ground telling me what to do). My pony could not understand language, and at the time, I thought he might never do. So, when I saw this strange, immediate connection pass between him and Betsy, I began to cry. This is tragic, I thought, my son clearly has the horse gene, just like me, but I’ll never share it with him because of his autism. It’s stunning how wrong a parent can be. It took Rowan running to Betsy four or five times before the penny finally dropped in my brain. “Do you want to get up?” I finally asked him, not remotely expecting an answer. “Up!” he affirmed. I just about fell over. He never gave this kind of lucid speech. I spoke to my neighbor, who told me in pure Texan to “have at it.” I put a saddle on Betsy’s broad brown back, placed Rowan on board and swung up behind him. The result was incredible, as if a cork has come out of a bottle. All the language that had been stopped up inside him just cam flowing out. From that day on, we started living together in the saddle, riding for hours at a time, singing back and forth, taking books up there to read. I broke all the rules, letting Betsy gallop flat out because it made him laugh and laugh and then talk more. I let him sit on my shoulders as we rode because it encouraged language. We jumped small fences, anything that sparked a speech reaction. Where regular therapists - and believe me we had therapists coming out of the wazoo - failed, Betsy stepped in. My autistic, closed-in son was now talking and engaging in the world, all through her. Now the Story Gets Crazier I’m a writer and journalist by trade (dressage for me, as most of us, is an addiction), but I have a second career in human rights. Long story short: My family comes from Southern Africa and, for many years now, I have been involved in helping displaced tribes from that part of the world regain their ancestral land rights. The same year Rowan was diagnosed with autism and met Betsy (2004), I had to bring a group of San, or Bushmen, from Africa to the United Nations. The Bushmen, like many similar tribes, have an intense tradition of healing through the use of trance, or altered state of consciousness. A couple of Bushmen on the delegation were trained trance healers and casually offered to “work” on Rowan. I said “Sure, why not?” I was not expecting any outcome, but the results were almost impossible to believe. For a few days, Rowan lost his obsessive behaviors, he was almost, well, normal. When the Bushmen went home, Rowan fell back into depths of his autism, but I couldn’t help wondering: OK, if horses and this kind of shamanic healing have helped him so much, what would happen if I took him to a place that combined those things? Did such a place even exist? I did some research and found that it did. Mongolia is a place where humans first got on a horse 6,000 years ago. It’s one place in the world where shamanism (along with Buddhism) is actually the state religion. What if we were to get on horseback and ride from healer to healer? What might happen? So in the summer of 2007, my wife Kristin (who doesn’t even like horses much) and I did just that with ROwan. To cut a very long story short, we went out to Mongolia with a child suffering from three acute dysfunctions. At almost 6, he was still completely untoilet trained, he had terrible tantrums all the time and he could not make friends. One month and 10 shamans later, having ridden horseback right up to Siberia to see the Dukha tribe in the remote mountains near the Russian border, my boy came back, still autistic, but toilet trained, no longer tantrumming and having made his first friends. A month after our return home, Rowan was - against all odd - riding Betsy by himself. Although the years spent working with Rowan and Betsy had deepened my understanding of horses, especially how they relate to humans, I didn’t make any connection then between my long-held passion for dressage and the riding I’d been doing with Rowan. In fact, I had begun the journey down the classical riding path way back in 2000, during a life-altering trip to Portugal, but that has been somewhat hijacked by life with an autistic child. I opened a therapeutic riding stable. The New Trails Center, close to where we live in central Texas. I bought a couple of reliable Quarter Horses, trained them in the basics of therapeutic riding, and we began in other special-needs children every afternoon. The Dressage Connection Father-Rowan Meantime, in my dressage life, I discovered two revelatory trainers: Alan Pogue in Texas, who taught me how to use dressage training from the ground, and Janine Pendlebury, a trainer in the UK, who studied with the great Luis Valenca (the trainer of the classical forses for the show “Appassionata,” Europe’s equivalent of “Cavalia”).  She breeds and trains champion Lusitanos and began initiating me in both the riding and training of piaffe, passage and the first airs above the ground. She teaches without ego. Her reaction when a horse or pupil makes a mistake is to laugh in a way that diffuses the tension, rather than adding to it, and immediately shows how to fix the problem - high-dressage school without the stress. Pupil-bow Of course, I couldn’t help wondering if therapy horses I worked with back home might learn some of this stuff. One of my therapy horse, Clue, is built kind of uphill, so I started working on a bit of rhythm and cadence. The next thing I knew, we were shoulder-in-ing and travers-ing. Then came the day I tried it with Rowan in the saddle. With me, Clue had been a little stiff, a little grumpy and resistant in a kind of “hey, this isn’t really my job and you know it” way but, when Rowan sat up there with me, he suddenly became soft and compliant. The grumpiness went away. We even tried a step or two of renvers - not very correct, but first steps seldom are. With me, Clue continued to be stiff. With Rowan, he was a gem. So I started experimenting. Using Rowan’s instinctive, un-intrusive tutelage, rather than mine, Clue has learned Spanish walk, the bow and the beginnings of terre-a-terre (not exactly the Classic Training Pyramid, I know, but what the hell). My autistic son and I became a horse training partnership. And now I’m seeing how the thing goes both ways. You see, some of the more severely autistic kids that come to us at New Trails are basically non-verbal but can be induced to offer an approximation of a vowel sound, such as “owwww” for “down.” They do this and then see the horse bow! The child then reacts with delight and will often then try the sound again. Before you know it, you have a child willingly offering on syllable words. Similarly, the single word commands “one” and “two” result in the horse presenting the front legs one at a time (or in dressage-speak offering jambettes, the initial phases of Spanish walk). Again, this is huge payoff for a kid, seeing the effect of a single-syllable try at speech has on this big animal in front of them. And then you have “three” and “four,” the back legs stepping one at a time - the preparation for piaffe. In a short time, many of the kids become motivated to speak, while the horses learn what they need to learn more happily and fluidly. I was finding that therapeutic riding and dressage were suddenly no longer separate disciplines. In fact, the special-needs kids were helping train high-school movements! This was pretty mind-blowing stuff. Then came the day I tried for a couple of piaffe steps with Rowan on board. The extreme collection of the movement brought out a great deal of laughter followed by, “That was great, Daddy,” and unusually lucid bit of speech, even as well as he’s doing these days. So, just to be sure, over the next few days, I tried some very collected canter with a couple of other kids. Some laughed, some didn’t, but almost all of them responded verbally to a rapid-fire set of questions immediately after the movement was done. The extreme collection was inspiring these kids to talk! But why? It turns out that there is some science behind this. Researchers at various U.S. universities and in Germany have found that any repetitive rocking motion that causes you to constantly find and re-find you own balance opens up the learning receptors of the brain. And the same motion also causes the body to produce oxytocin, the feel-good hormone. That’s why it feels so darn good to ride a horse. Movements that produce this rocking motion for the spine in greater concentration, i.e., the collected movements, feel especially blissful, as anyone who has practiced piaffe, passage and any of the airs can attest. That’s why those movements can be addictive, for they appear to be flooding the body with oxytocin and producing one of the world’s greatest natural highs. This oxytocin thing came as a revelation to me. Would it mean, for example, that a kid being taught regular academics while on a horse - and perhaps especially with the inclusion of collected movements - might learn better or even retain the information better? We decided to give it a try. In 2008, Rowan was accessed academically. He was doing great, about bang-on for where a first grader ought to be. Back in 2004, before he met Betsy, I could never have imagined such a day would ever come. But he lacked math skills particularly fractions. So into the round pen we went on Clue, and I began talking about riding him half way around, a quarter way around and so on. We added some collected canter to the conversation. A couple of weeks later, Rowan started talking talking about halves and quarters by himself when we rode. That was October. By March, he was adding and subtracting fractions. By May, he was doing them in double digits. Now, we’ve started using this approach with other kids too. So where is all this going? I wish I knew, but it’s exciting. Somewhere along the way, I have discovered, through Rowan’s help, through the help of Betsy, Clue, and trainers Janine and Alan, a whole different was of viewing the horse/human connection. From the strictly dressage point of view, it got me away from the relentless pursuit of the step for the sake of the step and back into dressage as a practical discipline helping humans grow and develop, rather than for it’s original practical applications - combat or bull-fighting, the mounted martial arts in which our beloved obsession has it’s roots. As a leap of faith, I just brought my first Lusitano stallion, so I’m assuming that this process of discovery will continue. My prayer is that I will pursue it with less hubris than in the past and with more of an eye to what the true value of it all actually is: dressage as service, as healing, rather than simply a sport. And I bet Rowan will help me ride that Lusitano better than I would by myself. Where all this will finally end up I do not know. But I invite other dressage enthusiasts to explore this path with me. For truly, this thing we call dressage has the stuff of miracles in it. "To God Be The Glory"
Where Healing Begins!