Winston S. Churchill once said, “There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man”, and I could not be more in agreement. When I was six, my father took me to a local trail barn for my first horseback riding experience. While the string of horses were being saddled, I wandered over to a nearby fenced pasture, admiring a large dark bay horse standing at the top of a hill in the distance. As I climbed the fence rail for a better look, the horse turned suddenly and began to gallop in my direction. He bound directly towards me, covering the ground quickly with each graceful, powerful leap. I stood there, frozen to the fence rail in awe and fear, when this large creature slid to a halt just a few feet from me. I could not move. The horse towered over me, breathing me in and out, his head high above mine. Our eyes locked. Taking one more deep breath in, the horse's nostrils flared and he exhaled vigorously, blowing wet, cold snot all over my face. The horse turned and walked away, his interest in me satisfied. I, on the other hand, was hooked. "Horse fever”, well-known by equestrians everywhere, took me over and never left.
Many years later, a professional equestrian trainer, I had the pleasure of working with a fellow trainer in her therapeutic horseback riding program. I saw before me the magic and power of those horses helping the inside of humans in need. The children and adults served by this program were struggling with Autism, Sensory Integrative Dysfunction, Learning and Language Disabilities, Attention Deficit Disorder, Developmental Delays, Emotional and Psychological Challenges, and more.
How can one animal provide so much benefit to such a range of individuals? The answer lies in the horse’s natural makeup and has been known since Hippocrates wrote about the horse’s therapeutic abilities for humans in 400 B.C. First of all, a horse's physical constitution and movement benefits riders with diverse needs. The horses natural gait, which mimics that of a human – variable, rhythmic, and repetitive – coupled with the animal's body warmth, provides a combination of sensory, motor, and neurological inputs that deliver a wide array of therapeutic effects. Equine assisted activities and therapies are now widely recognized as having a spectrum of benefits both physical and psychological, that often supercede the effects of traditionally administered therapies. Studies have shown that the benefits of Equine Therapy include improvements in assertiveness, emotional awareness, empathy, stress tolerance, flexibility, strength, impulse control, and interpersonal relationship skills to name a few.
However, the greatest benefit horses have for children and adults struggling with ADHD, autism, and other learning, developmental, and social, emotional, or psychological challenges, is that the horse is a mirror of these struggles. Horses are prey animals, prone to nervousness, suspicion, and hyperawareness. As horses, they also don't pretend at anything else - they behave however they are feeling - anxious, bold, relaxed, confused, and so forth. In working with horses, we need to be for them exactly who we need to be for ourselves when we struggle with feelings such as anxiety, fear, or confusion. This process - the process of finding a way to be for the horse what we need to be for ourselves, is the most powerful benefit of working with horses.
As Waldorf teachers, we have learned to work inwardly, to develop capacities and forces so that we can help foster the healthy development of our students. Working with horses will allow our students to develop their inner capacities to overcome challenges in life. Since being at Otto Specht School, I have seen incredible break throughs, moments of joy, and connections made. I look forward to guiding students in the unique experiences that caring for and riding on horses will bring.