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Horseback Riding as Therapy for Children and Teens with Asperger’s Syndrome

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, and 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. We wish such moments for our children as well; the deepest joy in being human may come in such freeing experiences, when we transcend our consciousness through pure affiliation with life outside ourselves.

Parents of children with Asperger’s may despair of seeing such joy in their children. In their passions with certain subjects or computers or games, teens with Asperger’s may seem happy enough, and oblivious to what they are not getting through deeper relationship with others outside the family, yet parents may mourn the part of life they seem to be missing – that joy of bonding with peers, communicating in an easy freedom from conscious effort and painful error. Misreading social cues, or not reading them at all may seem to sentence a teen with Asperger’s to a life disconnected from the emotional high points of truly connecting with others, but 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 every day life.

Horseback riding offers one area of activity which 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 Asperger’s. The brain is much more flexible and adaptable than it was thought to be fifty years ago. Scientists have learned that “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 plasticity of the brain to approach horse back riding as a therapy with the potential to provide a mind-shaping experience in non-verbal communication for the teens and pre-teens with Asperger’s syndrome. In situations where 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 Asperger’s put a high value on the positive experience of bonding deeply with a horse (see websites listed at the end).

Walking near horses, touching them, and riding them creates in most people an initial sense of awe, and some fear as we realize that we are in the presence of, and at the mercy of, an animal many times heavier, more powerful, and swifter than we are. 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 tossed head, the shudder that 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 stallions 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.

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