The Joys of Horse Riding for A Boy with Autism
Running, running, running, with a huge smile on his face. His eyes are focused on the door he opened with the flick of a switch. Ponies safely in their stables ignore the boy, more interested in chewing the hay. It is a hazy, lazy summer’s day, where the cares of the world are forgotten.
Kitted out in his riding hat, the boy eagerly awaits the allocation of his horse. Gabriel is with Tansy today, with Lillian leading. ‘Yes!’ exclaimed a jubilant Gabriel, jumping on the spot and raring to go. He is in high spirits as he goes with the leader to collect his pony, but he doesn’t run or walk on the grass or do anything that will frighten the horses.
In fact, he subsumes the calmness of the stables. Tansy is a fifteen-year-old grey mare, very gentle and docile, who is well used to the many different children who have learned to ride at the stables. The description of each horse is posted on their stable door along with any awards they have won. Gabriel strokes her coat and very carefully mounts his pony. “Walk on!” he says in an authoritative voice, feeling in control of his mount. He is now calm and controlled, ready to practice all the exercises he has been taught over the past few weeks.
What a transformation from the first lesson, when he ran in shouting, “What a catastrophe. It stinks in here!” Gabriel is now in proud possession of a first level star card, which sits in pride of place on his mantelshelf. He can now perform a rising trot, turn left and right, and, among other things, always remembers to thank the staff—mainly volunteers who have given up their time to help him. He says that riding is “awesome”. He knows the names, ages, and heights of all the horses, but Tansy is still a favorite.
For an autistic child, horse-riding is certainly worth a try. He has learned independence, how to follow instructions, personal safety features, and how to treat animals with respect. Gabriel’s confidence has grown, and he now talks to all the volunteers and other children with differing abilities and challenges.
For example, one friend is a boy in a wheelchair who has lost the ability to speak. Gabriel talks to him and makes him smile. They end their conversation with a ‘high five’. Parents and carers can watch the riding or take a welcome coffee and chat with others in similar situations to themselves. The staff are excellent, knowledgeable about horses and aware of difficulties the children may face. They help the children to overcome their fears and tailor lessons to fit the group dynamics.
Gabriel’s sister Olive watches her brother and sometimes goes with the group on their country walks. Here are her observations about the Chigwell Riding Trust, which was the first riding center for people with special needs in the world.
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Olive’s thoughts on Gabriel’s riding
I watched Gabriel ride Toto, Rider. He won 2 rosettes and a giant cup, which we are going to get his name engraved onto! enthusiastically taking in all the sights and sounds of the environment. His name had just been called to ride in the gymkhana competition, and he was beaming with excitement. Toto walked proudly into the ring,
Gabriel sitting confidently on his back. One of the workers read out Gabriel’s interests. “This is Gabriel, he is eight years old tomorrow and his favorite horse is Toto, outside of riding he enjoys watching Teletubbies.” Gabriel rode Toto round and round the ring doing countless different tricks. He ended up finishing 5th and was voted Most Improved
I’ve loved seeing Gabriel’s confidence grow throughout the time he has been here at the riding school, which caters specifically to disabled riders. It is a registered charity and an asset to the community, but wholly dependent on that community’s goodwill, the members of which volunteer in numerous ways to improve the lives of many people.
The horses are chosen carefully. In selecting one, the leader of the school says, “We always look for kind eyes as this reflects their character, rather like people really.” I asked the leader what her most memorable experience was of teaching disabled children to ride. She explained that one little boy could not walk, but the motion of the pony was very much like walking and through this he was able to learn.
For her, it was magical to watch him take his first few steps. In his time here, Gabriel has learned discipline, independence, and best of all, he has taken up a skill he will carry forever.
While I was talking to Gabriel about winning the cup, he told me this story:
Once upon a time there was a shy boy called Shy Guy who loved reading books. Shy Guy went to Shy Guy Falls often and went horse-riding every day. His horse is called Toto. He rode Toto in a horse competition called “The Horsey Competition.”
He wanted to win a rosette and collect it. After racing against Roshi, a green dragon, Shy Guy came in first. He was still a little bit shy but managed to collect the rosette because it was for Toto. He had a big grin on his face. Toto makes him feel less shy because he must look after Toto.
Gabriel has the final words: “Horse-riding is awesome!”
This article was featured in Issue 95 – Managing Autism Together