Idaho-based nonprofit organization Equine Partners uses horses to help people overcome social anxieties.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention announced this week one in 68 children is now diagnosed with autism. Therapist Rachael Hall says working up close with horses can help autistic children improve social skills.
“They’re a lot like humans in the sense that they understand boundaries and personal space,” Hall said. “So that can really help children with autism learn social skills.”
Hall says horses are extremely intuitive and mirror human emotions.
“If I am angry about something, frustrated or feeling upset about something, horses aren't really going to want to come around me, because they're going to sense that and be responsive of that,” Hall said.
That encourages people to be aware of their emotions in the moment. Equine therapy is what Hall calls an “experiential process”- instead of just talking about emotions, they work through them at that very moment. “You can say to someone 'well it looks like you have a really great strength of communicating with other people, how do you feel about that?’” Hall said.
Exercises like “Lines of Communication” force two participants to lead a horse through a narrow obstacle course without touching the animal at all.
“The way you're going to see how your communication is doing and if you're successful with that is going to be dictated by how well you get the horse through the obstacle course,” Hall said. “If you're having some issues on when to pull or when to push, when to back off and when to step forward, that's going to show because then the horse is going all over the place.”
This forces participants to work as a team, building communication skills.
Now, the ‘Trail of Trust’ leaves one partner blindfolded, relying solely on the verbal directions of their partner.
“Being blindfolded brings up a lot of trust issues for people, a lot of people aren't really comfortable with that so it helps with dealing with your own anxieties,” Hall said. “You're trying to add the complex element of leading a horse through an obstacle course, relying on someone else's verbal communication, so you're taking away your sight and really having to use your listening skills.”
Equine therapy also works in larger groups. For example, an exercise to get a horse into a large rope circle- again, without touching the animal.
“How well do you work with other people? Who has the ideas? How well do you convey your ideas? Are you the kind of person that's going to go out on your own and try to solve the problem by yourself and not rely on your team members?” Hall said.
This exercise is great for families, to improve problem solving skills, communication and family dynamics.
“It's really about improving those relationship skills, trying to be a team player,” Hall said.