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.
-- La Methode En Espanol (PDF) –
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Working with Autism can be tough. Working with horses can be tough. In both cases you are attempting to work with a complex individual who may not understand your communication, who experiences greatly heightened anxiety who solves his or her problems by shutting down or running away. And yet who is motivated to connect. We have to go the extra mile here. If we do the rewards are great, if we don’t we may not be forgiven.
So before we begin this work we should give ourselves a moment of compassion. Well done for wanting to do this work at all. Well done for being brave enough, caring enough and compassionate enough and forgive yourself in advance for any blips you might encounter. Relax, it’s ok! With a little humor and an open mind and heart we’ll get there. The bottom line is this.
It’s no big deal!
First get set up.
Your best piece of equipment probably isn’t a horse. It’s probably a trampoline. Many kids arrive at the barn full of energy and need some way to burn it off before they can concentrate on the horse. Ask yourself: Is my environment one that is going to make me demand normal behavior from a child that has trouble behaving “normally”? Is my environment full of places the child can’t go? Am I going to have to say “NO you can’t do that” a lot? Do I have a mechanism for allowing the child to burn off their natural energy before, during and in between sessions with the horse? Basically is my environment set up principally for the horse or principally for the child.
Many children on the spectrum benefit from sensory therapies. The horse itself can be an excellent therapist and therapy environment all in one. Smaller children often love to spend extended periods of time lying full length on the horses back. They often derive great comfort from this, and stimming often stops in this situation. In my experience this is best done with no saddle or a pad with vaulting surcingle while the horse quietly grazes.
However you are best off starting the sensory work not with the child but with the parent or caregiver. Why? Because most children on the spectrum will be circumspect about getting on the horse for the first few times. However if they see mom, dad, brother, sister, caregiver etc. up there (while they are busy jumping on the trampoline, playing with the goats, etc.) it demonstrates to them that the horse is a safe place to be.
Having an adult and child riding together is the most effective method for gaining communication verbal or otherwise.
Why?Because the combination of deep pressure (holding the child), speaking into the child’s ear (not face to face speaking that often agitates the child), and the movement of the horse (which apparently opens up the learning receptors in the brain) all combine to create an optimum environment for the child to receive and retain information.
Plus it’s fun.
@Pendllyn Luitanos: Janine Pendleburty, Rupert and Mercurio
Teaching a horse to do tricks in response to a one syllable command can be very useful in encouraging a child that is reluctant to speak, or on the cusp of becoming verbal to take that extra step.
Tricks such as smile, bow, lay down, jambettes (presenting a front leg on command), working on a pedestal, or even some high school dressage movements taught as tricks – such as levade, passade, piaffe, Spanish walk and so on – can give a child a great sense of empowerment.
@ Pendllyn Lusitanos: Janine Pendlebury and child on Mercurio riding terre-a-terre(canter on the spot)
Having a quiet horse that is schooled in collected movements, such as piaffe, passage, tere-a-tere and so on, can be useful. Riding with a child in a western saddle performing these movements creates a rocking action of the pelvis and spine and seems to induce a similar euphoria in the child as trotting or cantering – perhaps even more so.
Some children seem to respond to riding using these movements with great joy and laughter. And after that laughter sometimes words come.
Perhaps the most important survival skill a human being can learn is how to take another person’s perspective. So what does that mean exactly? It means knowing when someone is lying or telling the truth. It means learning to recognize and react to moods. It means knowing that other people think differently to you and adjusting your behavior accordingly.
You can often take advantage of the fact that the child’s learning receptors have been engaged by the motion of the horse. This is largely a matter of personal intuition and it helps to know what the child’s interests are, but I will give some examples.
When Rowan needed to learn fractions, we took him bareback on horseback into the round pen and began talking in a general way about going half way around. We then started talking about going a quarter of the way around, ¾ and so on with stops and breaks in between.
This is all about letting the child lead. Most of us grew up being directed by adults at all times. Many adults therefore feel that unless kids are directed most of the time they will ‘run wild’. Well guess what… an autistic child has already run wild and if you try to impose too much on them from the outside you will either drive them into their internal world or convince them that you are somebody to be avoided.
We are not here to teach riding. Some autistic children will naturally emerge as riders. Others may not. This is the same for all children of course. Most children, however, autistic or otherwise, often seem to benefit from time spent with social animals who have kind temperaments. The name of the game here is communication.
What we are looking for are techniques and ideas that help produce communication. It can be easy to fall into the trap of trying to teach riding, and certainly some kids want to learn how to ride. But that is a different set of techniques. It can be very easy to alienate autistic children from horses by adopting too much of an instructional approach.
What do you do if a child exhibits no interest in the horse? Sometimes a child isn’t going to respond to horses at all. It’s relatively rare but 100% of human beings are never going to respond to 100% of the same stimuli. That said, many children on the spectrum can take longer to process information than we might ideally desire.
Remember that the person that knows the child best will be a parent, grandparent, sibling or other trusted individual.
If you don’t directly involve them you are not going to have access to the information you need as the session unfolds. Putting a child up on horseback with a parent or a trusted sibling or carer can be immensely useful, both in the arena and on the trail. If the child doesn’t ride he can be stabilized in the saddle with side walkers, hopefully one of whom is the trusted family member/carer.
Ask the trusted individual at every opportunity what they think might work or not work and be ready to adapt what you do accordingly. You will get much further much faster this way.
If the child’s occupational therapist, speech therapist, ABA therapist or other type of therapist is willing to attend the sessions and try their techniques while the horse is involved – or even in the playrooms with the other animals, on the trampoline etc., then you have a chance to incorporate some non-equine related techniques that may already be working for the child. You may have a chance to reinforce them or add to them.
Remember this is collaboration, not a contest of who can get further with the child. Having several people there who know the child’s responses can result in some really creative and effective sessions. It’s not a prerequisite to have the child’s therapist come out (where it is a prerequisite to have at least one family member/carer there) but it can help.
It is always worth exploring all these techniques where stumbled upon by a certain trial and error process and to some degree reflect the equestrian interests of Rupert Isaacson who pioneered these techniques with his son Rowan. However it does not end here. There are many equestrian disciplines. It seems reasonable to assume that many of them can offer some therapeutic value if approached with that intention, and a spirit of curiosity and enquiry.
Laughter is verbal. Laughter is communication. Laughter is a language that transcends verbal skills and promotes trust. So be funny. What makes a kid laugh? Usually potty humor, physical comedy, and anything that seems to challenge adult rules and regulations. How many times have you gone into a barn and encountered a tense, competitive atmosphere? How many times have you heard back-biting about this person or that person? How many times have you encountered an almost military environment of barked orders and general grumpiness?
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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.