April 12, 2010

Horse Whisperer

Posted in AMT's Faves, Life's Little Moments tagged , , at 11:15 am by autismmommytherapist

I’ve decided my oldest son should live on a farm someday.

This is a decision I’ve made not because I like free vegetables, although I do. I’ve never quite made it to eight servings a day, but ingesting all of them in a twenty-four hour period is something I aspire to achieve. I still have ambitions.

No, my son is going to live on a farm someday because I want him to have something worthwhile to do as an adult, to participate in a job in which he’ll take pride and satisfaction. I also want him to reside on a farm because there is something there he loves almost as much as movies on his DVD player, and cute fifth grade girls who play with him at recess.

My son has a thing for horses.

Quite honestly, I never would have thought to try horseback riding with my six-year-old autistic son if it hadn’t been for a free day of lessons that Parents of Autistic Children (POAC), our local autism organization, had sponsored. Justin has never really engaged with animals, has generally avoided them, and has even regarded my mom’s dog with suspicion. Plus, I’ve always considered horseback riding to be an expensive sport, and since Justin will cost the equivalent of four neurotypical children, I didn’t think the activity was in the cards for us.

But on a crisp fall day this past October my mom, son, and I drove out to what passes for farm country in western New Jersey, and decided to give our equine friends a shot with Justin. If worst came to worst, even if he hated it, at least it would kill a Saturday.

I figured he’d probably give it a try if we encouraged him from the sidelines, and he lived up to our expectations. He tentatively climbed up on that horse with three people flanking him on both sides, held on for dear life, and at each turn, regarded me with only a slight air of desperation. Since each child only got fifteen minutes on an animal I hoped he’d make it through his timeslot without either sliding off his pony or protesting vociferously, and he did. He even seemed mildly happy about the event afterwards.

When I found out the owner had a slot open on Saturday afternoons for lessons, I decided to jump on the opportunity. I thought we’d give it a month, and if he remained this grim and declined to loosen his death grip on his horse du jour’s mane, we’d call it quits. I’ve found with Justin, you never really know if he’ll like an activity unless you try it. Sometimes, you have to try something many, many times.

Over the last few months he’s fallen into a rhythm with Crackerjack, his newest host. He has relinquished the reticence he experienced during his first few lessons, and instead embraced an exuberance toward this activity that I usually only see him reserve for snack-time. On weekends that he rides, as we pull into the stable, he strains against the harness on his car seat that protects both him and his mother from his Houdini-like ability to escape, eager to be released from its confines so he can visit his old friend. He races inside the barn, and I have to remind him that riding a horse with a full bladder isn’t the most palatable prospect as I lead him to the rudimentary bathroom. As I do so he always glances through the large bay window into the corral, and his entire body shakes with excitement at the prospect of a ride to come.

At first this activity was solely for him, but over time, it has come to have great meaning for me as well. Every Saturday, come rain, sleet, show, or shine, I lead him into the ring where his horse patiently awaits him. I barely have to assist him now as he climbs the mounting block, so steadily and with such confidence. As I watch him ascend with such assurance I am reminded of how difficult it was for him to walk, how six months after he was supposed to be making my life a holy hell by his mobility, I watched him begin to take tenuous, faltering steps, and was concerned at his lack of overall coordination.

After attaining the summit of the mounting block I see him attempt to place his foot securely in the stirrup and swing himself over the waiting back of his ride, and I recall how distressing it once was just to secure him in the car to arrive at an outing such as this, and how he now revels in adventure.

I watch him firmly grasp the reins as he steadies himself on his charge’s back, and see him tentatively caress the mane of his pony as he attempts to convey his affections. There was a time in the not too distant past that he avoided all interactions with anyone not genetically related to him, and I am reminded just how far he has come, how he now seeks out the interplay of discourse, the give and take of simple social interaction. He is no longer afraid to connect.

I find so often, as I am immersed daily in both the tragic and trivial consequences of autism, that I forget to notice his accomplishments, the small strides and great leaps that comprise his progress, that contribute to his peaceful, happy soul. These lessons have given that back to me, have offered me the opportunity to appreciate his courage, to be proud of him for every struggle he surmounts, and even those he doesn’t. This farm extends to him the gift of pleasure, and affords me the opportunity to reflect. I am thrilled to have provided it to him. We both learn something here.

And as I watch him round the corner of the barn, barely glancing at me as I enthusiastically cheer him on from the sidelines, I realize anew how much he has taught me to appreciate the smallest joys, the slightest increments of achievement, the pleasure of surprising him with a newfound love. This gift, he bestows upon me.


  1. Kim's Mom said,

    It truly is a delight to see Justin’s joy and accomplishment in such a short time. His smile of delight and pride brings tears to my eyes each time I see him. I think he inherited the farm gene from his great-grandparents. They would be so proud of him. Being a farmer is a great profession and one that we all benefit from. He would give gifts to many. Love that kid!

  2. misifusa said,

    He is an inspiration to me as I want to learn to ride as well…perhaps he could give me a lesson! I am so proud of him…and as always, proud of you…thanks for bringing ‘the moment’ home yet again in your great blog. I just love reading them. Like chapters in my favorite book…I can’t wait to read your next blog! xo

  3. Kathy Milmore said,

    Oh, I’m so happy for Justin! And so happy for you to have found this activity for him. (And a little jealous too. I always wanted to take horseback riding lessons when I was younger… but I digress.) Horses have some soothing/healing/earthy and mysterious quality about them, don’t they? So why not start a farm for autistic adults to live on? What a great idea!

  4. Jennifer Haftel said,

    You write with such beauty, candor and humor. Your words convey both the pride and anguish that you feel for Justin. Once I started reading your blog I could not stop. I had to read all your posts.

  5. Amy McLaughlin said,

    I just read your blogs for the first time, and like other readers, couldn’t stop. They are the perfect blend of humor and insight. You should be very proud of yourself for your wonderful blogs, but most importantly for being such a great mommy. 🙂

    • Thanks Amy, coming from a great mom herself! I appreciate your taking the time to read and respond, I know you’re busy. Can’t wait to come down again in the fall!

  6. Anita said,

    I so look forward to your entries to find out what’s going on in your life – I feel like I am reading your diary sometimes! 🙂 It is wonderful that you have been able to give Justin this opportunity and that he is enjoying it so much! I imagine it must feel all-powerful when you are riding on top of an animal that is so beautiful and majestic.

    • I know, it’s a bit like spying, isn’t it? Can’t wait to have face-to-face conversation in a few weeks! Thanks for checking in so faithfully, I truly appreciate it!

  7. Jackie Barth said,

    Beautifully written! Thank you for sharing such a special moment. I used to ride and miss it. I hope to catch up on the rest of your blog sometime soon. Keep the faith!!

  8. Cindy said,

    What a blessing that Justin has the kind of mother who would keep trying until she found something he loved and give him the time to realize he loved it.

  9. Dottie Hanly said,

    You have a great gift in your ability to convey your deepest thoughts using such descriptive, picturesque words and expressions. I feel I am sitting next to you listening to you tell your story. I admire you for the beautiful life you are providing for your sons. My nephew is significantly autistic and I know the challenges you face in your life X2! Joey aged out of the special school he attended and now takes the supervised bus to “work” everyday. This is his first year and it’s working out well, in spite of the long bus ride. Joey also loves horses and his parents are trying to find a place that gives lessons that would meet Joey’s needs.
    Wishing you much luck with your writing career. I couldn’t stop until I read all of the entries. Dottie

    • Thank you Dottie, I appreciate both your kind words, and the fact you took the time to reply. I wish your nephew the best, and hope his parents can find a therapeutic riding center. In NJ there are a number of them, hope they have similar good fortune.

      Take care and thanks!


  10. Amanda Niederauer said,

    Check out Wings and Hooves Therapeutic Riding, Inc.


    I heard about it through a connection I made volunteering with Autism Speaks, and your post reminded me of this great program!

  11. Mary Craig said,

    Thanks Kim! I needed that! Sometimes it seems almost like planning all of the events takes up so much time for such a small payoff after the event is over but this reminds me; I do a good thing!!

    I figured it couldn’t hurt to ask RD to host an event & considering how much both of my kids loved it there why not right? The others were nervous that it would be dirty in the barn (it is a barn after all LOL) and what if the kids were afraid. I said what if they’re not & what if they loved it like my kids do. It was wonderful!! I watched kids who had always been afraid of horses finally try it as teens & I saw toddlers loving it too.

    Our family can’t say enough nice things about what riding has done for our kids. It’s built trunk strength for both the typical & Autistic kids & brings language too. It’s a time when our lives seem to slow down and get so much quieter while we’re “on the farm”. I wouldn’t blame Justin for wanting to live on a farm it’s very calming there.

    • You and POAC do many wonderful things, and trust me, I wouldn’t be trying them with Justin otherwise (I’d probably never even think to do them!). He’s tried a lot of things, some have not worked out, some have. Honestly, ABA and the horseback riding have been the two things that have had the most profound effect on his life. His lessons are the happiest half hour of his week, and I think the benefits extend well past that time limit. Thanks for doing it Mary!

  12. ghkcole said,

    great post; did you read The Boy Who Loved Horses?

    • Not yet, but I intend to do so. I am woefully behind on my reading… I’m into Susan Senator’s new book now, it’s great.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: