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Horse Therapy and Autism

By:C. Pohlen
Date: Mon,10 Mar 2008
Submitter:C. Pohlen
Views:7945

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My Kid Can Ride!
Written by: C. Pohlen

That sounds like such a simple statement. The fact is I might as well have said my kid can walk! You see my son is severely autistic. That is a statement that is hard to voice out loud. Unless you have lived the nightmare personally, and I do not wish that on anyone, it may be impossible to fully understand the symbolism. New parents often feel a great joy at seeing their child roll over, set up, say their first words and even walk. These are supposed to be the highlights of our life as parents. My son, Robert spent his first few years, spinning round and round until he fell to the floor, rocking back and forth to soundless music I longed to hear, and lining up small objects in unique patterns that made no sense to anyone.

When my daughter was born with the same set of problems, I thought for a while that hope was simply a myth. Somehow I could make it, because that is what mothers do in this world. They make it. However, I helplessly watched as my husband was drained of all resolve. Then their grandparents began to wear those faces you see in bad plays, and funny smiles that took all their will and effort just to create for my benefit. I began to seek alternatives in sheer desperation. I put to use everything I had learned on the internet, from a terrific place called the Regional Center, and the good people of our school district. It was not enough. Then a wonderful friend sent me an article regarding horses. Not to make fun, but I was willing to grasp at straw.
That is when I found Darlene Harman. Angels really do come in all shapes and sizes. Her patience and perseverance as an exceptional teacher put my daughter on a horse. Mrs. Harman drew Aaron out, from the dark hole she lived in each and every day. Soon my little girl’s handful of words and meaningless phrases grew to a wealth of real communication. Her happy little chatter filled the air as her sweet soul opened up. Riding in the car one day, Aaron looked up at me and asked, "Is it horsey day?" I think that was just about the best day of my life. After that, I knew hope again. I continued to take her each week, and the measured changes in her attitude, behaviors and overall quality of life were enormous. Then here, my thoughts return back to my son. I tried to take Robert several more times to visit the horses, when I would take Aaron. His fear of the animals was simply too great. He was overwhelmed by the smells and noises that surround the world of horses. After a while I gave up and would leave him home because of the situation. It did not matter. Darlene continued to ask about Robert each and every time I brought Aaron to class. She persistently tried to bolster my receding dreams and mend the obvious heart ache that must have been plain on my face. Even if I had given up, Mrs. Darlene had not. She often suggested bringing him back again and just walking around the corals. Also, on her recommendation we watched shows about the incredible animals at home as a family nearly all the time. It was her undying perseverance that gave me a second wind and I know now she had a tangible handhold on both our hearts.Yesterday I took my son with me for the first time in several months to watch his sister ride. Robert showed only a vague interest in anything that was happening. That is other than how the dirt from the stables, corals and open riding areas made nice clouds as he stirred it up. I wanted to cry, but I did not. I had learned not to do that, at least not in public. Darlene placed a riding helmet near where I was sitting on the bench. She smiled and suggested that he might like to wear one like his sister. I pulled myself together, used every trick in the book I had learned and in the end Robert actually had put it on. The next part is a sheer miracle for sure. At the end of my daughter's lesson, Mrs. Darlene opened the gate and magically coaxed my little boy into the arena. Her two volunteer helpers, a tall veteran cowboy and a smiling young girl were ready at hand, with warm, incredible words of encouragement. I stepped back like any parent and let go. The tremendous beats of my heart were so loud I thought that everyone could hear them for sure. The noises Robert made were a combination of fear, nervousness and to my surprise and delight, joy, the real sound of joy. Like any child that walks for the first time, I could tell he stumbled a little in spirit and would not have stayed on the gentle beast, if it were not for the strength of Darlene's own will. Then the horse was moving at her command. A few steps, a few more steps and before long my son was really riding, tall in the saddle. Robert rides all the time now. After that first day, it was like seeing a light in the lighthouse break through the mists to a ship lost in stormy seas. Robert now dons his helmet and runs to the ramp, ready to control at least one part of his uncontrolled life, each week. The seeds of change have been planted as I hear more words each week then I ever dared dream.
I can not say

that this miracle will be for every child that tries. I can only share with you that Darlene Harman, owner of www.RideYourHorse.com! Therapeutic Riding Program knows a greater depth of patience and compassion than I have seen so far, in my all too many encounters in the world of Autism. She gives teaching a new definition. It is a way of life, not a job.

Robert Rides a Horse

Today was my son’s first real event at the stables. Robert rode in the single pole. To my surprise he received a ribbon as well. The one thing I think that is most important about the day was he rode the horse. Unless you really know what that statement means, it is altogether too easily said out loud. That is especially since he has only been doing so for a handful of lessons. My mother, the grandmother looked just a bit panicked at the whole situation. She had come to see him ride, and I could see in her eyes, that she had more then a few doubts. Of course Robert had reacted to the crowd as I suspected he would. It was not our first time together in new surroundings being asked to do things we are unsure of, regarding everyone else’s expectations.
Autism is a strange and unique place all its own. The sounds, smells and textures of the world that everyday people see and feel are abstract and miss-aligned to some degree, for kids like Robert. If you owned a radio that played only two channels, and the volume knob was broken, you might find you simply did not like to listen. What if the music were too loud or too soft, never just right? Perhaps the voices were like screams or the kind words, like whispers? I scanned the crowd as I prepared my son for the event. First Robert had to go to the bathroom, at the last minute. That to me sounds like any kid I ever knew. I told my mother everything was fine. I told her to find a good seat and he would be up soon. Then I grabbed Robert’s hand and held it tightly. In my own way I was telling him all was okay. We counted the dominos he had hid in his pocket and looked into each other eyes. Then we put his treasures, safely back in his hiding place, the lower pocket of his pants. I think he smiled again, as I closed the Velcro tight to hold them in.

It was time. I could hear the announcer saying something about his being the star of the day. That he was the rider they were waiting for. I know the announcer was being so very kind, but my heart skipped a beat. Like any mom, I longed for him to do well, but I was more then anxious. In my heart I knew he had just learned to walk in a way. It had taken him nearly two years to get on a horse at all. Now, he had only been riding a very short time and was expected to do well again. That may even have been easy in the surroundings that he knew. But here, in front of all these people, looking at him? Part of me knew it was a huge request, yet pushing him forward was important. It is what real mom’s do for there kids. If he did good or bad, in the end it did not matter. The important part would be that he gave it his best. I tried to replace the hat on his head that Grandpa had given him earlier with his riding helmet. That did not go well. I could feel things escalating in the wrong direction, but moved forward with a steady gate. In my own way, mimicking all that I had learned from the horse my son rides. The wonderful, patient soul that calms him in ways I can not fathom. I scanned the crowd again and saw many friendly faces looking back. That made things better in general. Each step was measured, both his and mine as we approached the riding block where Robert was to mount Oreo. I had a quick flash back of the first day he rode. Robert signed to me after that experience, “Cookie”. That meant Oreo was the horse’s name. He did it spontaneously. It was like seeing him clearly through a fogged window. We finally made it to the steps. I pulled my eyes away from Robert and met Mrs. Darlene’s. Like the still waters of a huge lake, she held us both. Her ability to hold control over the smallest to largest horses was more, then
obvious. My son and I were no challenge in comparison. The magic she held over Robert was the true essence of the magic behind everyday miracles. She told me to step back and let go. That is hard for a mom that wants to do anything to help. Funny part is that doing nothing is sometimes a bigger help in the end. Then as I watched on, I noted he was suddenly surrounded by people that made a difference in his life. They were cowboys and cowgirls that understood something that can not be written down. The closest word in our language that attempts description in the smallest fraction would be, “Compassion”.

There was an obvious struggle of power between the teacher and the student for a handful of heartbeats. Yet like any young horse fearful of the crowd, or being broken for the first time, my son complied too her direction. In the careful, steady hands of volunteer walkers, guided by Mrs. Darleen every step of the way, Robert made it. The crowd cheered, and I saw my own mother smile"
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