by Heather Green, RN, MA
Have you ever observed children around horses? Have you seen the way the child and horse light up inside as they interact, whether during riding, grooming, feeding, or just being near each other in a stall or pasture? The imagination shared between them is endless. Perhaps this is where the bond between them is formed. It is as if they are together in a world of their own, bringing in what they both need to thrive physically and psychologically. This is especially noticed with special needs children, such as those with Autism, Downs Syndrome, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and others that are physically or psychologically handicapped.
Because of these observations, you may begin to wonder, what is this bond and how does it help a child and horse thrive? In my eleven years as a Registered Nurse, five of those spent working with children, and in the last few years working with horses as an animal communicator, energy healer, and equestrian, I have observed many similarities between horses and kids, as well as the alchemy they have when coming together. These observations answer the mysterious questions of the bond and healing they share.
First of all, the compassion and unconditional love that a horse holds is endless. They are empathic, highly sensitive animals, which means they sense our thoughts, emotions, and feel our physical sensations. They also have large hearts both physically and metaphorically. Anyone who has ever spent time with horses, owned them, or worked with them would agree that their capacity to love is great. It is as if they can pierce the layers of our being and see who we are deep inside. For children with special needs, being seen in this way is essential in helping them with their own healing process, on whatever level that might be.
In addition, for children with mental and emotional challenges, a horse’s non-verbal nature resonates with them. It is like living in a foreign country where you finally meet someone who speaks your language. This is beneficial for the horse and child, because both can relay emotions, thoughts, and needs through body language and mental telepathy. Telepathy is a form of communicating with another through the mind with pictures, feelings, words, or thoughts. Special needs children already use this form of communication regularly to get their needs met, especially if their disability is in speech or mental processing. Therefore, with horses, they are often successful in riding and other horsemanship activities because information is being passed back and forth between horse and child with ease. It is like they are experts in a field that adults have forgotten or need to practice.
Along this same idea, horses provide a safe container for special needs children. A horse represents the most grounded being--living out in nature, with four legs in contact with the earth. As prey animals, they are continuously aware of their environment, with a need to be present in every moment for survival. Children feel safe in the presence of this grounded being, who is always aware of what is happening in the environment, and with them.
With riding, a child needs to focus, as does a horse, on the task at hand. Any meandering thoughts or shift in awareness can lead to a horse who no longer listens or follows the command of the child. There are also many repetitive body movements and actions that need to be taken while riding a horse. In cases of Autism, as many parents have reported, rocking motions can often have a calming effect on the child. The soothing feeling, focusing on the present, and safe presence of the horse allows a child to become grounded. The child can then direct his or her energy towards healing and learning, instead of using it for protection or on outside distractions. This is why parents of special needs children often report an increase in reading, speaking, writing skills, and/or improvements in physical functioning after the child has spent time with a horse.
On the same hand, riding helps children with physical limitations as well. In cases of blindness, deafness, or paralysis, a child has to learn to compensate for the lack of a certain bodily sense to maintain balance on the horse. The result of their focus and presence while riding usually leads to improvement in the other senses, such as sharper eyesight for those that are deaf, or increased upper body strength in paraplegics.
Overall, the benefits of children coming together with horses is amazing. The bond formed is very deep and lasts a lifetime, even if the horse is not forever in the child’s life. Although not enough research has been done to make definite conclusions, I think the healing happens because horses and children can relate to each other in pureness of heart, non-verbal, and telepathic ways. As I have witnessed at places of business where children and horses come together to play and create, also called Equine Facilitated Experiential Learning (FEEL), as well as at Therapeutic Riding Centers, children and horses seem to be open to the limitless possibilities in what they can accomplish together on a body, mind, and soul level. Their alchemy leads to a journey of health and wholeness for both. A horse in the life of a child seems like an option too beneficial to pass up, for parents and horse owners alike.