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Healing Horses

With fall now officially here, many communities have either already or are currently celebrating the fruit of the summer in county fairs across the country. This means delicious fair food, fun rides, and farmers showing off their prized produce and animals, like pigs, cows, and horses.

In past articles, we’ve discussed at length the effectiveness of animals to help children with autism in developing their social abilities while also providing the comfort and loyalty of companionship. With horses being shown at fairs across the country, this week we’re taking a particularly close look at how horses have helped children and adults with autism to both realize their inner strength and form a strong bond with another being that actually shares many of the unique qualities of those with autism.

In his new book Riding Home: The Power of Horses to Heal, author Tim Hayes examines in detail horses’ ability to emotionally transform the lives of men, women, and children who are suffering from deep psychological wounds. In the book, he dedicates a chapter to telling the story of Rachel, a young girl diagnosed with autism who was unresponsive to traditional therapy.

Having exhausted many of the traditional options, her mother took Rachel to a horse farm to see if the animals could potentially help Rachel to quiet the restlessness that constantly kept her from sitting still long enough to engage with others. From the moment she arrived at the farm, it was clear that she had an extraordinary connection with the horses, quickly forming a bond with a horse named Alfie.

One of the aspects that assist in horses connecting with humans is that they express their thoughts and emotions through their actions and behavior. They seek a safe environment and are eager to get along with others. For Rachel, Alfie offered a relationship unlike any other, one that was built on their mutual trust, which provided a foundation for Rachel to build upon, which she did when she began to befriend the other children and their horses.

Rachel’s case, while amazing, is one of many that have occurred at farms throughout the country. As documented in her book, Animals in Translation, Dr. Temple Grandin recounts her own transformative experiences interacting with and befriending horses, not just a scientist, but as a woman with autism. In the book, she expounds on her theory that autism disposes one toward visual thinking, allowing one to focus on details more closely, in a manner akin to animals.

Due to horses and humans with autism’s propensity for thinking in terms of pictures or images, they are drawn to what is familiar. In addition, horses in particular are extremely curious animals. In the case of Rachel, she simply had to touch Alfie’s nose for him to begin following her around and establishing trust with one another.

By forming a relationship based on familiarity and trust, horses enable people with autism to become more confident in themselves and the world around them, which in turn helps them to better relate to other people. So if you find yourself at your county fair this year looking into the eyes of a horse, perhaps take a moment to appreciate all that they do to help people with autism to truly believe in themselves.