On Saturday, April 2nd, Barnes & Noble Cheyenne will be holding a fundraiser to celebrate the release of Cowboy Fever. Simply tell your cashier you support CTEC and a portion of your purchase will help children with autism enjoy the benefits of therapy riding.
No one really knows how it feels to have autism, though people like Temple Grandin have broken through the communication barriers and given us a glimpse into their world.
Imagine being barraged all day by sound and stimulation that is overwhelming to the point of being painful. Imagine being unable to filter your senses: the sound of a fan humming demands as much attention as a spoken command; the light and motion of a reflection on the wall is as distracting as pictures flashing on a movie screen.
Now imagine that language and communication are a mystery. You have no way to make anyone understand how you feel. When your senses overwhelm you, you cannot ask for help. Your only protection is to retreat into comforting, repetitive rituals like rocking or twisting your hands, over and over, focusing on the motion so the bad feeling will go away.
Grandin has offered a lot of insight into how the thoughts of a person with autism are similar to the way animals think. This may be one reason equine therapy is so effective. But when you watch the kids at CTEC ride, you see something more than empathy at work. I’ve watched kids gain confidence and self-esteem, learn to communicate and express joy and affection in a totally new way — all because of a horse.
The qualities that make these animals so easy to bond with are hard to define, but here are a few ways horses help the kids learn and communicate.
Control: Horses are huge, and yet a well-trained equine is docile and cooperative. Imagine how empowering that feels in a world that’s out of control. Wouldn’t you like to be able to strap a saddle on your life and ride it, tugging the reins to steer it your way? The commands that make a horse walk, stop, and turn are simple and effective, offering instant response.
Focus. You’re sitting high in the saddle, facing forward, reins in your hands. You’re seeing the world from a new angle. When you look between the horse’s ears, you see exactly where you’re going — and the rest of the world, with all its confusion and complexity, fades away.
Trust. The horses CTEC uses for therapy riding are selected because they’re calm and obedient. Riders can count on their mounts to turn when asked, stand patiently for mounting, and stop when you tell them to. They’re predictable and trustworthy. And in many cases, the horses at CTEC are rescue horses, older animals who might suffer neglect or abuse.
Sensitivity. Horses are flight animals, so for anyone dealing with trauma or distress, their reactions are easy to understand. “Fear is the main emotion in autism and it is also the main emotion in prey animals such as horses,” says Temple Grandin. “Things that scare horses and cattle also scare children with autism.”
Communication. Communicating with a horse is done through simple cues that animal is trained to respond to. Children with autism often have to learn social interaction step by step, from making eye contact to reading facial expressions, and horses offer a way into this learning process.
Magic. This is the part you can’t explain. It’s the part that makes a little girl’s face brighten as she swings into the saddle and surveys her world from horseback. It’s the part that makes a boy nuzzle a horse and whisper in its ear when he rarely expresses affection otherwise. Clinical studies have shown that your brain wave patterns actually change when you are near horses. They soothe fears and calm anxiety.
Unfortunately, the magic isn’t cheap, and autism is expensive. Wyoming is a very progressive state when it comes to funding for children with special needs, but equine therapy, miraculous as it can be, isn’t an approved expense. Parents are on their own when it comes to paying for lessons, and many simply can’t afford it.
That’s why I’m hoping that our fundraiser for CTEC will help some children experience the magic of riding — and possibly have their own breakthroughs on horseback.
Please help! Join us Saturday, April 2nd at Barnes &Noble Cheyenne. The bookfair lasts all day, and we’ll be holding the Cowboy Fever launch party from 6:00-8:00. At 8:00, we’ll move to Uncle Charlies for snacks, a cash bar, and music by Todd Dereemer. See you there!