“OK”, you might think: “it’s all very well you guys doing Horse Boy Method out there in the country with your horses and all your animals, but what good is that for me here in the city?”
There’s an easy answer – a lot of what we do does NOT require horses and lots of green space.
Sure, the horses and the wide open spaces are the ideal, but you can do a lot just by tweaking a regular city or suburban house and yard. Then you can apply the same learning modules we use here at New Trails to teach everything the kid needs to learn.
Rowan still spends some time most days on the back of a horse, however he mainly learns in a variety of other places such as his trampoline, the woods behind his house, a nearby creek etc.
Since his parents took him out of the main stream school system when he was three years old they have discovered a number of different techniques that help him to receive and retain information.
Teach reading, writing, math, physics, etc.
These techniques have allowed him to advance from mastering the basics of reading and writing, to simple math, to much more complex topics such as physics, biology and chemistry.
All that is really necessary in order to do this yourself is knowledge of the child you are working with, their motivations and sense of humor, the right environment and the right people.
Six Stage Process
Horse Boy Learning is a simple six-stage process based around an adapted form of the techniques we use in Horse Boy Method. Why? Because we recognize that although we feel that horses provide the optimum environment not everyone has everyday access to them and A LOT can still be achieved without them.
Just like in Horse Boy Method we start by creating the right environment and addressing sensory issues. The ideal learning environment should be set-up to increase oxytocin (a feel good hormone and reduce cortisol (the stress hormone) production. We then allow the child to move. All children are kinetic learners they learn best through movement and exploration. “Normal” kids often can also learn while sitting still. Most kids on the spectrum or with ADD/ADHD etc cannot. Therefore if they are allowed to do this in a pressure free environment whilst focusing on what they are intrinsically motivated in then we generally find that they very quickly advance in terms of their perspective taking, theory of mind and academics. Using these same techniques they can then begin to learn self-advocacy which is arguably the most important life skill of all.
Stage 1: Environment & SensoryStage 2: MovementStage 3: Drop it, Do It, Confirm ItStage 4: AcademicsStage 5: Social Skills & Perspective taking (Theory of Mind)Stage 6: Self-advocacy
Stage 1: Environment & Sensory
Cortisol, which is released by the amygdala in response to a detected threat, tends to narrow an individuals’ focus thus inhibiting their ability to take in new information. In stark contrast oxytocin is released by our safety/self-soothing system and has the ability to down-regulate stress. When we feel safe we have more attention available to focus on new concepts and learn. A Horse Boy Learning environment should be set-up to increase oxytocin and decrease cortisol production. The best way to do this is take the child out into nature away from man-made stimuli. Even the busiest cities often have beautiful parks so wherever you live it is always possible to access nature. If this is really not possible then bring nature to the child. The most important thing to remember is that the Horse Boy environment should be delightful to the child. This will automatically lead to increased oxytocin and decreased cortisol production and only when this happens will your child or the child you are working with be ready to learn.
Stage 2: Movement
Research has established that different people learn in different ways. It is generally accepted that there are three main types of learners: visual, auditory and kinetic. Whilst most schools can cater quite comfortably to visual and auditory learners they often struggle to deal with kinetic learners, who learn best through movement and exploration. Because children with autism are more often than not kinetic learners allowing the child to move is an essential component of Horse Boy Learning. Rupert discovered that movement was key to opening Rowan’s mind to learning when they first started riding together on Betsy. As Betsy moved underneath him Rowan began to use expressive language for the first time and soon afterwards began to master the basics of arithmetic and spelling. However what Rowan experienced on Betsy is just one way that movement can be used to help a child learn. What Rupert quickly realised with Betsy was that the more rhythmic her movements were the more they seemed to open Rowan up to learning. We quickly discovered that any type of rhythmic movement, whether it is produced by the child themselves (trampoline, swimming) or whether the child is placed on a moving object (swing, canoe, surf board) seems to have a similar effect on a child’s ability to receive and retain information.
Stage 3: Drop it, Do it, Confirm It
All new information should be presented to the child following the rules of ‘drop it, do it, confirm it’.
Research shows that if a person feels under too much pressure then this can lead to stress which as previously stated can lead to increased cortisol production. This is likely why most children on the autism spectrum shut down when they feel under pressure and is also why we never pressure a child to ride or do anything else whilst they are with us.
It is also why in Horse Boy Learning we always introduce a new topic or concept slowly without, at first, expecting any feedback from the child in return. Instead we simply talk about the concept in the presence of the child whilst also partaking in an activity that the child enjoys. When the child feels ready they will voluntarily begin to take a more active role in the conversation.
As previously stated children with autism are often kinetic learners. That means that they learn best, not by sitting in a classroom, but through movement and exploration. In order to help the child learn it is therefore essential that you find a way to teach each new topic kinetically (through movement). This is easier than you think and the more practiced you are at it the easier it becomes. Math, reading, writing, science, geography etc. can all be taught on the back of the horse, on the trampoline or whilst walking or swimming.
Never test the child. Obviously at some point they may need to be able to take a test or exam and we have techniques to help prepare for that but these skills can be left until much later. Testing the child automatically puts pressure on them which leads to stress and cortisol production and the likelihood is the child will shut down. So if we don’t test the child how do we know that they have gotten something? Well firstly, as we explained earlier, if a child is introduced to something in a no pressure way using something they are intrinsically motivated by then more often than not they will voluntarily begin to actively participate in talking and finding out about a topic. It is also possible to stealthily ‘test’ the child’s knowledge using fun games and treasure hunts.
Stage 4: Academics
Now that we have the child moving in a no pressure, natural environment it is time to start teaching them. We do this by following the principles of ‘Drop it, Do it, Confirm it’ and a number of other techniques which seem to optimize the child’s learning potential.
15 Minute Rule
Most neuro-typical adults are unable to sustain attention on any one task for longer than approximately 20 minutes. In order to keep ourselves seated at a desk and working for 8-10 hours a day we therefore have to constantly force ourselves to refocus on the task at hand and this can eventually lead to stress, anxiety and depression.
Why then do we expect our children to sit a desk and listen quietly to their teacher for up to an hour at a time?
In Horse Boy Learning, despite the fact that the child is outside and moving, we still limit any task to 15 minutes (less if working on an abstract concept or anything new).
Letting the child lead and tailoring each subject to the child’s interests
Most school systems are based around extrinsic motivation, meaning that teachers provide rewards for correct behaviour and these rewards are the incentive for children to learn. This often has the consequence of reducing the interest a child has in the task itself. Extrinsic motivation also tends to undermine independent learning, making the child dependent on the source of the rewards (e.g. the teachers). Another problem is that when learning is based on rewards, understanding is often relatively superficial and does not generalize across contexts or situations.
In contrast intrinsic motivation refers to wanting to learn and understand for learning’s own sake. In Horse Boy Learning we have found that when teaching children with autism this is the best type of motivation to use because the children are most likely to listen and learn if what you are talking about is of interest to them. We do this by always incorporating what they want to do (swimming, animals, trampoline) with what you want them to do (math, geography, history, English).
Humor is the key to Horse Boy Learning. Laughter automatically leads to decreased cortisol production and increased oxytocin production. In addition the funnier a child finds something the more likely they are to remember it and want to do it again - intrinsic motivation at its’ best.
Stage 5: Perspective Taking, Theory of Mind & Social Skills (comes after because for many kids its easier to learn to spell or write than to learn these skills)
The ability to understand and take another person’s perspective is essential to understanding social relationships, developing critical thinking skills and understanding abstract concepts such as truth, belief and relativity – all essential to learning. In Horse Boy Method we go on from this and use the horse to help the child through their first perspective-taking steps – by literally carrying them in and out of another person’s perspective. As always the most important thing here is not to test the child as they won’t know the answer and this will set them up for failure. In Horse Boy Learning we can replicate this without the horse by carrying a young child on an adult’s shoulders in and out of another person’s perspective or using another type of moving object such as a car or even wheelbarrow. In a similar way to with academics we can also invent humorous games that model theory of mind.
Stage 6: Self-advocacy
In very young and low functioning children we can encourage self-advocacy by always listening to and respecting a child’s communication whether it is positive or negative. This means listening if a child says they don’t want to do something one day or need a break. There is normally a good reason for this even if it isn’t immediately apparent and the worst that can happen is that you come back to it again the next day or week or even month. It doesn’t matter – just trust you will get there eventually.
In older, higher functioning children and young adults we can encourage self-advocacy by encouraging the individual to teach or tell us about something that interests them. By doing this we can help convince the person that we find what they have to say interesting and worthwhile and therefore that they are an interesting and worthwhile person.
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Information deemed to be reliable but not guaranteed. Check for pricing and trainings. Terms subject to change.
The Horse Boy Method is not intended or offered as a cure for autism. Ameliorative effects may or may not occur. The method was found to be very useful with Rupert's son Rowan and with other children subsequently. We simply follow what worked for Rowan and others but there is no guarantee of outcome.
By participating in a Horse Boy Method session or training or applying them at home you accept full personal responsibility for any injury or death that can follow any equine activity. The Horse Boy Foundation accepts no liability.
Just as a reminder… The Horse Boy Method Training is an intro into the methods including but not limited to back-riding. We do NOT suggest that you go home and start back-riding with children. Practice, practice, practice! Seek professional advice from your trainers to deepen your skills as a rider and horseman/woman. Take lessons! Again, after the training you are probably NOT ready to ride with a child. Practice until you, your horses and your property are ready for back-riding! HORSE BOY LLC, IT’S MEMBERS, OFFICERS, TRAINERS ETC ARE NOT LIABLE FOR ANY INJURY, DEATH OR DAMAGE CAUSED BY YOU BACKRIDING WITH A CHILD OR OTHER PERSON.
We do suggest you and anybody you work with wears protective gear like protective riding helmets etc.