Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Why We With Autism Personify Our Autism Horses

I have had to take a little law clerking and artistic painting hiatus from my blog for awhile. Now that I am back, I want to write about a little understood subject among neurotypicals and neuroskeptics -- about those of us with autism and our relationships with our autism horses. In essence, why we with autism personify our autism therapy horses and why they are such a vital part of our lives.

The use of therapy horses in autism is not and should not be a new concept.

In the 5th century B.C. horse riding was used for rehabilitating the wounded soldiers (Gamache, 2004). Florence Nightingale observed in 1860, “[an] animal is often an excellent companion for the sick” (p. 103). During the 1960s, when Equiis Savant began riding, horses first became used in the United States for therapeutic purposes (Engel, 1984).

Many people ask me what "is" horse therapy and where can they go to get it. It has been called by various names before, such as: Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy (EFP), Equine-assisted psychotherapy (EAP), equine-assisted experiential therapy (EAET), Equine-facilitated therapy (EFT), Equine-assisted learning (EAL), Equine-facilitated learning (EFL), therapeutic riding, psychotherapeutic riding, and hippotherapy (physical rehabilitation/therapy; Gasalberti, 2006). There are quite a number of different horse therapy programs existing in the United States, often run through non-profit organizations. Some adults with autism, as I have done, can advance after many years of such therapies to benefitting from having their own personified autism horse who vastly improves their lives. My mother began my horse riding therapy when I was age 10 after I told her I knew a Breyer horse was not a *real* horse and I wanted to ride a real horse. I have continued since that time with my personified autism horse therapies my entire life.

There are a number of reasons cited in the available literature over the Internet as to why horses are ideal for psychotherapeutic work and would work for benefitting people like me with autism: Horses have a calming effect on the person while requiring total attention to the moment, prospects for metaphor, and relational features (Esjborn, 2006). The horse is a prey animal and is also distinctly social. Horses can aid persons with physical disabilities, who benefit from the gentle rocking motion that may help to relax muscles and improve balance. The horse’s large size may contribute a therapeutic benefit -- its power and size provide opportunities for riders to explore issues related to vulnerability, power, and control. The straightforward nature of the horse’s interactions also may lead to therapeutic gains because horses are not duplicitous in behavioral interactions, and communication between horse and rider is typically clear and unencumbered (Taylor, 2001). As a result of all these characteristics, horses can be instrumental in helping people with significant autism communication deficits such as myself to achieve direct, honest communication -- in at least some format(s).

Horse therapy can can teach people with autism about energy, boundaries, how people move their bodies, and the intensity of purpose we as people with autism bring to others, because horses are very sensitive to our energy and how we move around them. According to Brooks (2006), if the person moves too fast or wants to touch the horse, they often move away from the intensity of the energy we convey; they are careful about maintaining personal space. Yet, horses are also very curious and will usually approach a human who remains calm and unaggressive (p. 208-209). This allows autistic people to learn to respect the boundaries of the horse and still have positive interaction with it. Although I still have boundary difficulties with people (humans) in some circumstances and contexts, the horse therapies I have received have neverthless vastly improved my abilities, and I have at least become pretty fair with understanding boundaries in the autistic-horse interaction.

Horses have also been used to simulate healthy touch in a holding environment to 're-create the safe space, both physical and psychological, which is created by the mother unbeknownst to the infant.' Jennifer A. Lentini, M.D. & Michele S. Knox, Ph.D., A Qualitative and Quantitative Review of Equine FacilitatedPsychotherapy (EFP) With Children and Adolescents, International Journal of Psychosocial Rehabilitation, 13(1) (2008), pp. 17-30 (hereafter "Lentini & Knox, 2008"). Thus, horses may benefit people such as myself with autism -- with overcoming problems relating to physical contact or closeness. "[B]eing carried” by a horse may have positive associations for women who have shunned physical closeness by humans (Bates, 2002). The holding and touch therapy provided by horses has also reportedly been used to aid in correction of negative experience such as those causing a psychotic break, through the use of trance in therapy and the horse as a means to help a rider focus into an alpha meditation state promoted by the natural gaits and regular motion of the horse induced through its rhythm and relaxation (Lentini & Knox, 2008). I have never been fortunate enough to have a therapist sufficiently knowledgeable to use my autism horse therapy for some of my different complexities equally problematic as the latter; however, I have tremendously benefitted from my personified autism horses for touch and hold, carrying therapies to help me address my childhood issues of not being able to achieve closeness and contact with other people (humans).

Therapy with horses reportedly may also be used to break though a person's defensive barriers and bring them fresh insights (Tyler, 1994). Autistic people who are behaving in ways that are inconsistent with feelings or thoughts must, according to Tyler, become behaviorally consistent and cooperatively affective in order to work with the horse; 'a therapist in office work might not be aware of the existence of such dissonance the horse can bring to light by its tendency to display unsettled behavior until the person's behavior becomes internally consistent.' Roberts (2004), attributes such as the reason horses work well for therapy concepts of relaxation training, self-awareness, and abstract schemas of unconscious. He describes the horse as "a living, breathing biofeedback machine because it externally reveals internal processes in real time. … Horses respond to the internal state of the person, no matter how much the person tries to disguise it” (p. 33). I can certainly attest to all of these uses of my personified autism horse therapies in my life with autism, perhaps among the biggest benefits this therapy has provided to my life -- although I KNOW the neurotypicals will NEVER make me into one of THEM !! Give. It. Up. all you NTs ! My social cognition circuits will always be ... autistic !!!

Horses, as the literature explains, can teach autistic people to send congruent messages with spoken and body language, because horses communicate almost entirely through body language and are not capable of "double bind" communication (Vidrine, 2002). Thus, a horse can function as a very large mirror to overcome the lack of mirror neurons inherent in autistic people's brains to promote conscious attention to the autistic person's specific behaviors, encouraging authentic communication and awareness of our secret intentions. Horses are relational animals possessing natural ability to mirror what an autistic person's body language is saying, as a result 'giving insight into our own nonverbal communication and behavior patterns' (Colclasure, 2004, p. 2). Cumella (2007) observed many other benefits of horse therapy, including improved self-confidence, self-efficacy, communication, trust, perspective, assertiveness, and boundaries. Moreover, the uninhibited nature and unconditional response of the horse, as well as the horse's non-judgmental nature, may contribute to greater connectedness and self-acceptance on the part of the rider with autism (Lentini & Knox, 2008).

As mentioned, while I have praised the benefits of these uses of personified autism horse therapies in my life, I am not, however, confident I have achieved all the objectives mentioned by Cumella -- some being far more difficult for a person with autism than others. I am likewise not sure it has been helpful for an autistic person to lack understanding of double bind communication, but at least my personified autism therapy horses have taught me to communicate -- and that is a headstart !!

The rhythm created by riding horses is also reportedly important to simulate one of the first experiences of a developing child, to build up “body-identity” and help with correcting pre-verbal dialogue. It is because humans can actually ride horses, there is a unique relationship there that is not present with an autism therapy dog or cat. 'A literal holding and sustaining dynamic is created when a rider experiences close skin contact with a big and supporting living horse, and it is significant in this respect that the ratio between the body weight of a horse and rider is not unlike the body weight ratio between a mother and infant.' The horse may interact with the autistic person in an appropriate and physical way that would not be possible for the therapist. (Lentini & Knox, 2008). While I have achieved benefits from my horse therapies in this respect, I still experience great difficulty separating out the difference between interacting with a human therapist and my personified autism therapy horse -- is this an autistic problem ? A personified horse problem ? Or perhaps, one of having not yet formed a complete attachment ? I suppose I will have to leave that to my future human therapist with the courage and skill to tackle these issues.

Vidrine (2002) also discusses the use of horse therapy for transferences in the Jungian sense of archetypes such as Pegasus and the unicorn, The Black Stallion, and Misty of Chincoteague. According to Vidrine, 'the horse provides a whole new object that may be projected upon with various transferences' by the autistic person, whereby people with autism 'can imagine horses as magical, powerful, beautiful, brave and strong,' contributing to the therapeutic benefits derived from autism horse therapy. Bates (2002) explains that the horse also may be represented as the object of transference, associating the rider’s repressed id to the horse’s impulsivity and vitality while the therapist acts as superego, limiting the rider and horse to safe behavior. “[T]he therapist’s job (superego) [is] to show the patient (ego) how to control the horse (id) without losing the horse’s vitality” (Scheidhacker, 1997, p. 33). This technique, when mastered, people with autism can learn to apply in their relationships with other people (humans) !!!

I can definitely confess to projecting Jungian archtypical fantasies and various transferences onto my personified autism horses -- especially when I am galloping along at a good clip. How does an autistic person explain the feeling she is mounted on the Black Stallion or Flame ? Or, a Black Winged-Pegasus ? Again, perhaps I will leave it to another day for my future therapist to work out all these transference fantasies that vastly improve my life while riding my personified autism horse with mane and tail flying in the wind !! And, yes, we people with autism come to believe through our autism horse therapies that our autism horses ARE in fact human !!!

Horses can also reportedly teach people with autism 'structure, responsibility, routine, care for another (the horse), empathy, safe mistake-making, the value of practice and mastery, discipline, problem-solving, body awareness, visual learning, patience, respect for others choices, creativity, self-esteem, relaxation, the value of completing necessary but unpleasant tasks, self-reflection, and nurturing;' in addition, group horse activities can widen the autistic person's “circle of trust” and promote interpersonal interaction (Lentini & Knox, 2008). The Spanish Peruvian horse has frequently been used for such interactions because it is known for a “gentle, consistent, trustworthy disposition” (McCormick and McCormick, Horse Sense and the Human Heart, 1997, p. 43). The husbandry and care of a horse can be instrumental to autistic healing. Such additional autism horse therapies are achieved by what we people with autism commonly refer to as "working around the barn." This can include (*Gasp*) mucking our personified autism horse's stall !! (And, WHERE IS MY THERAPIST ?! ... perhaps 'futher !' explains my fantasies projected into my newest savant art masterpiece I am working on called "Peruvian Princess At The Medieval Castle With The Faere Charisma" !!!)

According to Internet literature, the horse’s sensitivity may help an autistic person coordinate their emotions (i.e, French: movement and behavior (expressed feeling)) with their feelings (sensations and perceptions). Thus, horses may be used in family, cognitive behavioral, play and analytic therapy (Taylor, 2001). In a comprehensive paper in 2007 (a real mouthful), Karol discusses six aspects of the benefits of psychodynamic work done in sessions employed by an advanced-level clinician: "existential experience (including aspects of biofeedback, here-and-now attention, and immediate communications), unique relationship with the horse, therapeutic relationship with the therapist, nonverbal experiences communicating with the horse, preverbal experiences such as comfort, touch and rhythm, and the use of metaphor. She notes that, 'When a [person] is on top of a horse, sometimes for the first time in [that person's] life, he or she is looking down onto [others]... and can experience power… and an enhanced sense of his/her own body… [furthermore] the horse is also a vulnerable creature and so serves as an apt companion for a [person] overwhelmed by his or her own sense of vulnerability and imperfections' (p. 81). The relationship with the horse can help develop a ... self-concept and ethics.'" (Lentini & Knox, 2008).

"'Transference can occur in relation to the [horse] and be used therapeutically, and countertransference may develop, especially if the [autistic person] takes out his/her frustrations on the animal. Nonverbal experiences communicating with the horse refers to how the [autistic person] listens for and interprets the nonverbal cues of the horse. This can be expanded into how [autistic people] relate to the outside world in human behavior and communication. Preverbal experiences relate to the development of object relations.'" (Lentini & Knox, 2008). Karol also sometimes uses music to augment and encourage the development of an internal consistent rhythm, and can develop metaphor through the autistic person's imagination, through problem-solving, or through story-telling, thereby using metaphor to help bridge the inner and outer worlds of the person with autism. Id.

That WAS a mouthful (!), but I can personally attest to the tremendous help my personified autism horses have been to me through my life in even remotely achieving my ability to coordinate my emotions and my feelings -- amazingly, I believe my better-than-expected Bar-On EQi score bears this out. And, I have to say ... there is NOTHING that compares to riding horses to music, which I have done on a number of occassions !! Pleeeaaaassse (and I promise not to stim !) ... let me practice my piaffe and do my canter pirouettes to the sound of Jimmy Driftwood's "Battle of New Orleans" ... "They ran so fast that the hounds couldn't catch 'em, down the Mississippi to the Gulf Of Mexico" !!!

Horse therapy can also reportedly be used for conditions co-occurring with autism such as borderline personality disorder (Bates, 2002), and/or treating people who are fearful, anxious, depressed, angry, or dissociative (Tyler, 1994). In a study of different types of sports intervention, “[t]he most consistently positive intervention [with special needs people was found to be] the horse therapy” (Arizona State University (ASU), equine therapy, McCann (2005, 2005, p. 2). (Vidrine, 2002) suggests that therapy with horses may be particularly effective in treatment of refractory and guarded patients. (Scheidhacker, 1991; and McCormick,1997) go further and recommend use of horse therapies when traditional psychotherapy fails. I do know I have autism co-occurring features of borderline personality disorder, probably from my childhood sexual molestations and having witnessed the suicide of my mother; I also highly suspect, although no one has ever told me, that I disassociate as do most people with autism who have been forced to pretend they are *normal* in a neurotypical World and other causes, but I won't even get into the complexities of THAT in my particular life -- it is waiting for the One Dominant Savant Psychotherapy Master With The Expert Abilities To Ride Such Double Black Diamond Slopes In The Hopes Of Seeing That Beautiful Eternal Liminal Dissolution again !! I do believe, however, that my autism horse therapies and personified autism horses have helped with these co-occurring conditions, and I know I have personally experienced the benefits of such autism horse riding on the release of happiness spells on me when I become depressed over something -- and they also do a Great Job controlling my sometimes unbearable TLE pain syndromes ! Aarrrgggghhhh !!

There are other benefits I have achieved from my autism horse therapies I do not find mentioned in any of the literature I have read -- such as the relentless practice focusing on points while doings things like flying lead changes across diagonal lines, has helped me to be able to hold eye gaze with others deeply looking into their eyes while conversing -- despite my autism. Competing with my autism horses in horse shows has taught me a lot about how to put on a performance, even to entertain others when they want Entertainment Live !, and be tangibly rewarded for doing a good job the right way.

Maybe the most important thing my personified autism horses have given me is the knowledge that horses can truly speak, and what they have to say is this: There is no dream a person with autism cannot achieve if the person just believes through unwavering faith that their dreams really can come true !!!

~ Equiis Savant


  1. A great post. Thank you. I have always known that horses/riding were theraputic in some way I couldn't express. I still think there is something magic about it that the experts, despite their efforts, will never be able to pin down with words. I think you've captured it in your ending.

  2. My daughter has been riding since she was 14 months (now 5); I can identify and acknowledge many of the points you beautifully articulate. Both daughters (with and without autism) personify their horses... thank you for sharing this wonderful post!!

  3. This was very interesting and well written! Thank you for visiting my blog the other day about Invisible Disabilities and sharing your experiences on lack of accommodations. It was nice to hear from you!

  4. I wonder what it will take to get insurance companies to fund equine therapy on a par with medical therapies? Sometimes I think we have too puritanical a view on therapy... aka if it isn't fun, we can fund it. If, God forbid, it seems like it's enjoyable, we shouldn't cover it!