The Amazing Ways Equine Therapy Can Change a Child’s Life
“Mommy, you purple!”
The little girl’s big brown eyes were wide with joy as she said the first phrase she had ever spoken. Up to this point, the young girl expressed her “special language” and ironically colors. Today was the first time in her short life of yearning to communicate she was able to utter what all thought was impossible.
It happened on an overcast, clouds burgeoning day with rain that Katie and her mom graced my farm where a team of specialized therapists and I teach equine therapy to special needs children. Katie has autism, a communication disorder that affects over one in six children in the United States. She had not met the typical milestones of most children, especially speech, where she was significantly delayed. Katie’s mother is a fierce advocate and always willing to try any therapy to unlock her child’s potential.
She enrolled her in a local advocacy group for autism that supported equine therapy and would pay for this therapy for any child that met the criteria. Katie qualified for weekly equine therapy sessions, and at two-years of age, she came to my farm for sessions on our sweet pony, Quest. Quest was a broad-backed small brown pony that had large lovable brown eyes, and he loved teaching equine therapy even more than I did.
Like many children, Katie had a severe aversion to the riding helmets, and vehemently cried every time we put it on her head. Once the toddler realized that a riding helmet meant a ride on her pony, she welcomed it and even grabbed her favorite, a pink helmet with a pony painted on its side. We could see her sensory issues were subsiding. She would also grab his mane or pet his soft velvety skin.
Everyone that worked with the little girl knew there was something special about Katie. Her eyes spoke volumes, and with certainty, we knew that she loved her weekly rides. We either had her ride bareback or used a surcingle, an apparatus that we would put around the pony that had two handles and a thick oversized moleskin blanket that covered his whole back.
The soothing rhythm of Quest’s cadence would settle Katie into a quiet state where she would sometimes lie down and even fall asleep. There was no denying it; equine therapy was giving this child more than rest. To her mother’s surprise, she would leave the farm singing her ABC song, a first. Sometimes her babbling would reveal hidden words that no one knew she could say. It was hard to negate that there was an evident change in her demeanor after her cherished weekly rides on Quest.
The horse was healing this child into wholeness. During each session, her equine therapist would encourage Katie to speak. She would ask her to “kiss” Quest when she wanted to walk. Katie had a receptive language but was unable to be expressive. It was apparent she could always understand what we were asking of her.
At the end of the therapy session, her therapist would often tell Katie to point to parts of the horse, and she would locate each feature with 100 percent accuracy. The clouds began to burst from their burden, and the rain started to fall lightly. Usually, the students don’t enjoy the rain, as it generally creates a sensory overload. Her therapist looked at her mother and asked if they should quit.
Her mother knew her daughter better than anyone else and said, “Can we keep going?”
They kept riding, and Katie was enjoying the rain and laughing with glee. Most equine therapy sessions are half-an-hour, but because Katie was having so much fun, the session turned into hours.
Her therapist continued to ask Katie to identify parts of the pony. Then the therapist pointed to her mother. Her mother loved walking with her daughter during the many sessions at the farm, and she stood next to the pony.
“Who is this?” the therapist asked Katie.
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Admittedly, the therapist was surprised by her question because they would usually ask her to point to her mother, not identify who she was.
Within seconds she shouted with vigor, “Mommy, you purple!” She laughed because she discerned that her voice was monumental because everyone had gaping mouths.
It had not registered in our hollow minds that Katie had just spoken and identified her mother, who had just dyed her hair a vibrant purple.
Baffled, the therapist asked again, thinking that maybe it was a fluke.
“Who is this?” This time she lifted her voice with excitement. We all waited for Katie to speak.
Katie started to laugh, hysterically, “Mommy, you purple!”
That was the beginning of the unlocking of a little child to the world of speech. Today, Katie tells her mom that she loves her. She now asks for her pony when she wants to ride. When the weather is cold and equine therapy is suspended, Katie will try to ride her family’s large dogs. Before she climbs on, she grabs her mother’s motorcycle helmet. She draws pictures of her pony complete with a little girl who has a helmet on. Her life is full of hope because the key of promise started with a sweet little pony at my farm, Raise Your Dreams.
This article was featured in Issue 92 – Developing Social Skills for Life