How Horses Became a Form of Therapy for Me Before My Autism Diagnosis
One of my autistic special interests changed the course of my life. I fell in love with horses at the age of 4 after my parents took me for rides on a pony. For 25 cents, they would lead you around the track six times on the pony of your choice. Lots of quarters were spent as they couldn’t get me off that pony. That became the Sunday ritual — take Anita to the pony track and spend half the day there.
Never hearing the word Asperger’s until age 50, then getting diagnosed, I never had any Early Intervention. Actually, I did, only I didn’t know it at the time. The love of pony rides turned into an obsession with horses. As I got older, I desperately wanted riding lessons and a horse of my own. My
parents couldn’t afford either of those, except for an eight-week series of group lessons. That didn’t stop me. When I was 12, I became a working student at a big stable near my home in New Jersey. I earned riding time and lessons by mucking out stalls, painting fences, picking rocks out of the pastures, and cleaning saddles. The more I worked, the more time I got on the horses.
I was an autistic kid (undiagnosed at that time) who was totally awkward, extremely clumsy, and never looked anyone in the eye. As painful as it was, I had no choice but to interact with people. I’d savor every minute in the saddle. I’d focus on the movement of the horse as he’d walk, listening to the cadence of each hoof as it clip-clopped along. I was mesmerized by it all. I would use the time while in the stalls mucking them out to study each horse, observing their behaviors. The horses seemed just as fascinated by me. They would come by me, nuzzle their soft noses against my face, and seem peaceful.
My dream was to jump horses over big fences in competition. I spent every summer, weekend, and holiday at the stable. Horses were my life. And they were also my therapy. They got me out of my shell, interacting with people, learning how to work, learning how to take instruction from others, and dramatically improving my coordination.
I began working my way up the ladder of riding skills. Of course, part of getting on a horse is the possibility of unintentionally coming off the horse! I can still remember the first fall I sustained. The horse had decided he was enjoying the cold weather, took a leap into the air and started
bucking. Off I went, falling on the ground. I was scared because I couldn’t breathe. I felt like a fish out of water. The instructor ran over to me, and she instructed me to try and relax, and that my breath got knocked out of me. She explained that this is normal after a fall, and in a few moments I’ll be OK. She was right. I then calmed down, and a few moments later, I could slowly take a deep breath in. No injuries, just an unexpected experience. I got up, dusted myself off, and we then went over to retrieve the horse who was standing nearby looking bewildered.
I got back on, only this time I focused more intently on my position in the saddle, and gripped my legs more tightly against his sides. Of course I was scared to get back on, but I did it. It was a learning experience. One of many!
I continued the lessons, the mucking out stalls, and eventually I reached my dream, riding in jumping competition. I was a working student from age 12 to 21. It all changed my life. All the skills I learned during those years empowered me to have the skills necessary for life, and for sure my career as a
Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist. It also built my self-confidence. I was a little lost soul when I first started out, then blossomed into what I am today. When I see a horse, I get tears in my eyes, as they all have a special place in my heart.
I purchased my first horse at the age of 29, after graduating from Columbia University with my
Master’s in Nurse Anesthesia. The day I received the letter congratulating me on passing my Board exam, I was on a mission to finally get my very own horse. That for sure was one of the highlights of my life. I used to take him to ride in clinics at the United States Equestrian Team’s Olympic Training
Center in Gladstone, New Jersey.
Although I no longer ride, I still have horses, three of them, at home on my farm. They still provide therapy, as it’s peaceful to my soul to simply feed them and watch as they eat their grain then munch on their hay. Looking back over all those years, I see the incredible therapy it provided for me.
Horseback riding is used as therapy for many reasons, and autism can be one of them. I highly encourage parents to consider horse therapy for their autistic child. There is a specialized kind of horse therapy called hippotherapy. The American Hippotherapy Associaton defines it as follows: “The term hippotherapy refers to how occupational therapy, physical therapy, and speech-language pathology professionals use evidence-based practice and clinical reasoning in the purposeful manipulation of equine movement to engage sensory, neuromotor, and cognitive systems to achieve functional outcomes.”
You can read more about this amazing form of therapy on their website at www.theahainc.org.
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