Marie (not her real name) has been participating in Horse Boy activities for the past 2 ½ years. She is 7 years old and was when she came to us diagnosed with PDD-NOS and selective mutism.
The PDD-NOS diagnosis has since been taken away.
Marie’s first encounters at New Trails
When in 2009 Marie first started coming out she was a very different child to the one she is today.
At this early stage she rarely made eye contact and would not engage when spoken too, she would also self-stimulate by sucking on her cloth elephant George or tensing her body into a stiff legs/back body posture and would avoid all body contact with anyone except her father whose shoulders she would want to sit on all the time.
In addition Marie spent the majority of her time in a parallel existence watching from afar rather than interacting with the other children or volunteers.
She also suffered from regular and long lasting meltdowns.
Because of her anxieties she also did not – at this stage – interact with the horses much, instead preferring to play with the smaller animals like the goats, rabbit and guinea pigs.
However her father reported to us that when she went home she would draw and talk about the horses, naming them all and following what was happening to them. An integral part of The Horse Boy Method is that we always go at the child’s pace and never push them to ride until they are ready but instead have the horses in the background for when the child is ready. We were therefore happy to let Marie come to the horses in her own time.
First Horse Boy Camp: Sensory work on the horse
However, by the first Horse Boy camp she attended in April 2010 Marie was ready to get on the horse to do sensory work. This involves sitting or lying bareback on the horse with a person stabilizing her on either side. She was also willing to let the horse move at slow walk but seemed to prefer to sit or lie on the stationary horse for hours at a time.
We noticed that whilst she was up there she began to interact with the people around her, following their directions to stroke or hug the horse.
Marie at this point was also due to her sensory issues not able to accept a helmet. Today Marie is able to do so and wears a helmet for every ride. This would have been impossible for her just a few months ago. What exactly has changed the fact that she now can tolerate a helmet we don’t know, however we have seen many times that even the children with extreme sensory issues, after a slow approach with the environment in their favor, lots of sensory work and finally a bit of back-riding, are able to tolerate helmets eventually.
Marie is starting to communicate with us
Over the months following that first camp we observed that many of Marie’s anxieties seemed to leave her during her now regular visits to New Trails and that this began to translate to her time off the horse too.She gradually began to leave her cloth elephant at home and moved from constantly sitting on her father’s shoulders to being content to hold his hand. During this time Marie became comfortable enough to laugh and make other sounds around us and she slowly began to interact and play games with us, often including one of our smaller animals as a safety mechanism.
The first rides
At her second camp in October 2011 Marie was finally ready to ride properly. She communicated to us (by pointing to a ready tacked up horse equipped for long lining and nodding vehemently) that she was not yet ready to ride with us in the saddle so instead we long-lined her. This involves us attaching two long reins to the horses bit and driving it from behind. It allows the child to feel a sense of independence in the saddle whilst we safely control the horse at a walk or collected trot.
It’s worth noting that Marie’s communication by this point had become very advanced. It’s also worth noting that the effects of being longlined on a horse can have great neuro-psychiatric benefits. For example Dr. Temple Grandin at Colorado State University (Fort Collins) has published extensively on the fact that the rocking motion caused by riding in this way opens up the learning receptors of the child’s brain because of the constant need to find and refind balance from moment to moment.
Overcoming fear of riding helped her overcome fear of new food?
Certainly, from Marie. However, Marie left this camp and immediately began to try new foods that she had previously been unwilling to taste. It seemed that her pride in overcoming her fear of moving on the horse had translated to her fear of trying new foods.
In addition to regular visits to our center Marie attended two more Horse Boy Camps in January and March 2012. She continued to enjoy sensory work and long-lining on the horses and also began to take part more in other much more complex and social activities such as arts & crafts, rule-based games and zip-lining.
Marie begins to speak
Marie began to bring a friend of hers out to New Trails with her and the two girls often rode together or played with our volunteers and other animals. Marie also struck a friendship with the young daughter of one of our volunteers and began to speak a few words to her. Needless to say this was an enormous milestone.
Marie rides with Jenny
It was at this stage that we decided to try and encourage Marie to start riding with Jenny in the saddle. The reason for this is that the combination of deep pressure, speaking into the child’s ear and the movement of the horse all combine to create an optimum environment for communication. Also with back riding you can safely use the trot and the canter outside on the trail and trot and canter usually induce a euphoric responds in the child and words often follow.
Marie had communicated to us by now that she wanted to back-ride but she was still struggling to work up the courage to actually do it. We therefore decided to show her it was safe by getting our therapy dog Bruce, to back-ride with Iliane.
Marie found this incredibly funny and as expected started to back-ride with Jenny just a few days later at our most recent camp. Since this day we have spent many happy hours in the saddle together, exploring the woods and trails as well as playing games such as tag and hide and seek on horseback.
A confident, relaxed and communicative child
Marie relaxes more and more each time she comes out and the sound of her laughter is now common at New Trails. She has gone from a shy, anxious child who rarely made eye contact to a confident, relaxed one who communicates directly even verbally, laughs often and who is a firm favorite with all of our volunteers. Her cognitive, sensory and communicative challenges have lessened so much that she has now become one of the most functional children that come for our services.
Marie is learning to ride by herself
Marie’s most recent development is that she chose and communicated to us that she would like to ride alone and learn to ride. It is incredible to see this girl transform. We are very happy and proud to teach Marie to ride! As we say our main focus is communication and not to teach kids how to ride, but there is no reason not to teach them to ride if they chose to.