By: Catherine H. Knott, Ph.D.
A horse runs swiftly across a field in sunlight, the rider connecting to the horse as if they were one creature. When they come to the fence, in one motion they seem to stretch forward in the same moment to sail over the fence, landing in a single graceful footfall, then springing away again. We all love such moments of beauty and connection and wish we could have such oneness of being with others–the moments when the joy of truly living becomes both apparent and paradoxically unconscious. The deepest joy in being human may come from such freeing experiences–when we transcend our consciousness through pure affiliation with life outside ourselves. As parents, we wish such moments for our children as well.
Parents of children with autism spectrum disorder may worry seeing such joy in their children is impossible. In their passions with certain subjects or computers or games, teens with autism may seem happy, but they are not developing deeper relationships outside the family. Parents may mourn the part of life they seem to be missing – that joy of bonding with peers and communicating without effort and painful error. Misreading social cues, or not reading them at all, may seem to sentence a teen with autism to a life disconnected from the emotional high points of truly connecting with others. It is possible, through retraining the brain, to recover or create new abilities to connect emotionally with others through deep levels of communication not always experienced in everyday life.
Horseback Riding Can Change the Brain
Horseback riding can help the brain create new, more instinctive, yet conscious communication patterns. It even has the potential to reawaken the unconscious to the emotional channels of empathy with others that seem to be partly or entirely dormant in the person with autism. The brain is much more flexible and adaptable than it was thought to be fifty years ago. Scientists have learned “words can be just as powerful as drugs in correcting errant brain pathways that are causing some mental diseases.”
Pulitzer-prize winning author Ronald Kotulak writes, “Using high-tech imaging devices that can ‘see’ the living brain processing thoughts, scientists at the University of California at Los Angeles showed for the first time that behavior therapy produced the same kinds of physical changes in the brain as psychoactive drugs” (1996, p.24).
A landmark series of experiments at Harvard Medical School by Torsten Wiesel and David Hubel demonstrated the power of experience to shape the brain. They won a Nobel Prize for work that showed that “sensory experience is essential for teaching brain cells their jobs, and after a certain critical period, brain cells lose the opportunity to learn those jobs” (1996, p. 18). At the same time, a corollary of their discoveries demonstrated that cells not used in one function can migrate to serve another function. “The ability of the brain to rewire itself, grow new parts for damaged cells, and even make new cells – its “plasticity,” in scientific jargon – was thought to be impossible only a few years ago . . . All those ‘truths’ are being tossed out as brain research undergoes a revolution fueled by molecular biology’s remarkable ability to reveal the secrets of cells” (1996, p. 150).
Parents, teachers, and coaches can use the model of the brain’s plasticity to approach horseback riding as a therapy with the potential to provide a mind-shaping experience in non-verbal communication for the teens and children with autism.
During horseback riding, students are expected to communicate successfully with a large, powerful animal and direct the behavior of that animal through touch. Success becomes both its own reward through the exhilaration of riding and the insurance of safety. In other words, the incentives to communicate correctly become much stronger and more immediate than in average day to day communication with other people. In addition, many children and teens with autism put a high value on the positive experience of bonding deeply with a horse (see websites listed at the end).
The Joy and Awe of Being Around Horses
Walking near horses, touching, and riding them creates, in most people, an initial sense of awe–and sometimes fear–when realizing we are in the presence of, and at the mercy of, an animal many times heavier, faster, and powerful. The horses we are likely to encounter are tame, and yet not tame, domesticated, yet sometimes still wild. We catch it in the gleam of their eyes, the shudder they give after a workout, or the wildly energetic and mischievous games they play with other horses, racing around the corral or pasture at speeds that seem impossibly fast. We watch in awe and fascination as stallion’s rear and strike the air or each other, or as mares seek to dominate by baring their teeth and putting their ears back at other horses, creating a herd hierarchy that is strange to us, yet oddly familiar because it reminds us of the hierarchies our own species creates. We can value time spent around horses for its own sake. We can also learn a lot about ourselves from what horses teach us about communication.