We pulled off a beautiful curvy hill country road onto a gravel driveway that lead you down a hill to a gate with a sign that said, “New Hope Equine Therapy Center”. Our riding time was not to start until 9:30 so I reversed to stop under a shaded tree until it got closer to our time. I had a 21 minute commute from our home but it felt like 2 minutes because my head was full of unknown nerves of what the expectations may be with Cody for this morning. I prepared the best I knew how which was to make sure he was comfortable with his helmet and boots before his first lesson. We had incorporated those tasks into his therapy the week before. Brad and I had set our expectations that we would be thrilled and feel accomplished if it took all 12 sessions for Cody to walk along the side of a horse in the arena. We just want to continue to offer him as many experiences as we can.
I sent a quick text to Sharla, Founder and Director of the equine center and also Cody’s therapist telling her we were here and would be walking around so he could get used to his environment and new people. We parked and I unbuckled him from his car seat and set him down on the ground,. He began to whimper. I handed him his snack cup and he began to explore. He headed directly to the gates where several of the horses and goats were so I just took his lead. A lady stopped and asked us to go by the tack room to grab a helmet for him. I took a deep breathe and thought to myself, “Ok here comes the tears, possibly a tantrum and this is the time for me to have lots and lots of patience.” We had been practicing at home with his bike helmet and just hoped putting it on here would transfer nicely too. I noticed the helmets were very similar so I stopped by the car and put it on instead of one in the tack room. I had his straps perfectly adjusted and my fear is if I grabbed one from the tack room it would then frustrate him and turn into a bad situation. Got another whimper but successfully snapped the chin strap and we were good to go and off through the gates.
Found a cool swing (imagine that) under a shaded tree so I quickly raised him up to set and enjoy his snack so he could take it all in. We had two therapy goats nearby (Steven and Henry) that I am sure were getting a whiff of Cody’s teddy grahams. Made a few introductions to a Mom and her 10 year old daughter who had been riding for 3 years and another sweet Mom who was also the office manager volunteer whose daughter was 13 and had begun riding a year ago. Sharla walked up for a quick introduction, explained to her this was a bike helmet that we worked on for the last 10 days for him to wear and she was forever so grateful as she mentioned this sometimes could take a full lesson time just to get a kiddo to wear a helmet. She took Cody’s hand and said we will get started and go get an actual horse helmet. I asked if I should hold back and she smiled and nodded her head yes. I quickly thought to myself, ” I sure hope the changing of helmets does not cause a complete meltdown trying to find the right one.” Within a few minutes, she came out and my purple helmet cowboy was ready to go!
Hand in hand they walked straight up the wooden ramp that had a deck so the rider was level with the horses back and without any hesitation lifted Cody up to try to put him in the saddle. Sharla said Cody has a knee lock grip and nothing was going to get him to straddle Mulan, Cody’s horse. Tears started to flow and after a few tries, she and Cody sat on the bench up top and tried to get him to calm down. Once he calmed she took his hand and they walked down the ramp and up to Mulan. She picked up Cody so they were eye level. She stood about 10 feet from Mulan and slowly eased closer. She then leaned on Mulan while holding Cody so his legs were leaning again his beautiful side. I was watching every move. A few Moms were trying to a small talk but it was tough for me to concentrate as I did not want to miss a thing. Then Sharla took Cody and cradled him so his back was leaning against Mulan’s side. I had already befriended Valerie, the office manager of New Hope and asked, “ What is she doing now?” She said, “She is wanting Cody to feel Mulan’s breathing as it can be very calming and relaxing for him. I suddenly noticed that Cody had stopped crying but could still hear him trying to catch his breath. After an unsuccessful second attempt once he was relaxed, he quickly did his famous knee lock so Sharla set him back on the ground.
Off they went. From left to right it was the volunteer, Mulan, Cody and Sharla holding Cody’s hand with another therapist in front leading Mulan into the arena. They all walked side by side for 3 laps around in the arena just so Cody and Mulan could get more comfortable with each other. I then noticed they exited and headed down the dirt road into the woods. I asked Valerie where they were headed and she mentioned they had a full sensory trail for the children. Not knowing what all this entailed she shared with me all the different obstacles available for the children to complete on horseback. Sounded so fascinating to me and could not wait to tour this area after his lesson. Another 5 minutes passed and I began asking other Moms how many lessons until their children would get in the saddle. One had mentioned 3 visits and another said it took 6 lessons. Knowing this gave me some peace of mind.
Next thing I know, I noticed Valerie running down the ramp towards the sensory trail. I told the other mother, I wonder if Cody got on the horse and she is going to take a photo? Earlier that morning she had asked our permission for photos with it being North Texas National Giving Day this Thursday. And around the corner walking straight towards us, there he comes. On top of Mulan with 3 people surrounding him, my purple helmet cowboy was riding a horse for the first time! I started to video and had to stop because I started to cry. They had him sitting backwards. She mentioned this is a relaxation technique they will use for a child to get them in the saddle for the first time that may have some sensory overload and help desensitize some of the his sensory issues.
The therapist may decide to change the position of the client on the horse to achieve different goals. By turning sideways, the lateral pelvic tilt of the rider is enhanced. It also diminishes the client’s base of support with increased demands on the trunk muscles to work harder to maintain an upright position. By riding backwards, postural reactions are enhanced because of limited visual input. Since the client cannot see where he or she is going, there is decreased anticipatory feed forward control. This position also provides the ability to weight bear through the upper extremities on the horse’s hindquarters, which promotes co-contraction, stability, and may decrease tone.6 The client may also lie in supine or prone, which are particularly good positions for increasing sensory input to the client for improving muscle tone and promoting an overall relaxing effect.
They headed directly for the arena and there is no words to describe the confidence and pride on Cody’s face. He seemed to even sit up taller and you could just tell he was loving every moment. They then did several laps just trying to build more confidence and getting Cody used to the feel of the movement while Mulan was walking. They even had Mulan step up on a platform so Cody could learn how his body would move with Mulan. The entire time he had one hand with a death grip on Sharla’s pink t-shirt and the other hand was tightly gripped around his snack cup. Not once would he let that snack cup go!
First Ride Slideshow:
Sharla mentioned that he did great and has a great smile. I asked what I could do between now and next lesson and she mentioned to continue to watch horse videos especially the ones of his self. And with no surprise, his favorite part of the sensory trail was the ball drop. Observing this process for the two of them to connect pulled on every emotion you could possibly think of. I am so proud of him.
I have read so much about equine therapy and how it gives children with autism a sense of themselves, their bodies, and increased contact and interaction with the surrounding world. How is creates self-confidence by learning how to interact and work with their horse. Bonds and relationships that are made with their horse they ride, and this behavior is then expanded to include teachers, trainers, therapists, and family members. Temple Grandin shared a fascinating interview talking about the rocking motion and rhythm (while riding a horse) can help stabilize speech. Just this morning, Brad shared with Cody’s Para about his weekend and riding a horse and she got eye level with him and said, “You got to ride a horse?” Cody looked at her and whispered, “horse.” Who knows where this will go but as a mother who will never give up or lose hope, I feel like we have a beautiful blend of therapies all working so well together right now for Team Cody. 4 years old and riding a horse. What courage.