The Healing Power of Horses for Autistic Children.
Ever since a pony accident when I was five years old, horses have been one of my greatest fears in life. Never would I have predicted that someday I would own a farm, or that horses would be a crucial part of our family life. I’ve learned that we never know when the unexpected will happen nor where our lives will lead us.
Dustin is the youngest of my four boys, and by the time he came along, I knew my way around babies, boys and what to expect as they grew up. His development was markedly different from what we’d experienced with his brothers. His speech was delayed, he had difficulty focusing, and he became easily frustrated. At the time, diagnosing autism wasn’t as prevalent as it is today. We were told he was developmentally delayed, with ADHD and generalized anxiety. It wouldn’t be until years later, that he was finally diagnosed as somewhere on the high functioning side of the autism spectrum.
When Dustin was three years old, we visited my sister, who is a veterinarian, in Arizona. She was very passionate that horses could be an effective therapy for much of what ails you and we decided to spend the day at a ranch. We put Dustin and his cousins on a big old donkey, and he lit up like a Christmas tree and spoke a few words very clearly! We couldn’t believe the remarkable difference – my sweet, but agitated, little boy seemed to have the longest stretch of contentment I’d ever seen him have.
Back home, we knew we had to find a way to incorporate horses into Dustin’s life. He started therapeutic riding lessons and the progress was incredible. His mind unlocked, and he was able to do things on horseback that he struggled with in school. Letters and numbers flowed, sentences were strung together, his body was more organized and his mood stable and calm. We found the thing he could succeed at and he loved. He started competing, bringing home blue ribbons in the Special Olympics and competed in the Hamptons Classic!
At this point I had just turned 40 years old and thought it was the perfect time to make the commitment to conquer my fear of horses and have an experience that Dustin and I could share. I began taking lessons with Jackie Kelly West. Jackie is an amazing trainer, knowledgeable in the psychology of horses and equine therapy. I was terribly afraid and crying in fear the first time, but she helped me understand how to combat the fear and learn how to trust the horse, and myself. I slowly learned to ride independently and how to trot and handle horses. Euphoric with the freedom of riding, I also learned what lay on the other side of fear— a hobby that would give my son and I an entire new world. Now that I had the courage to get on the horse, I took the lessons and applied them to every area of my life. I also spent a lot of time thinking about how I could build a world for him that would let him fly and also free me of so many of the fears that come along with being a special needs parent.
While I was falling madly in love with horses, Dustin was also undergoing a complete change in his physical, mental and emotional well-being. He was becoming a strong rider and by the age of six, was riding mountain trails on our trips in Arizona. He might have been struggling with language, athletics, and academics, but on a horse, he was gifted. The abilities that began to emerge through his connection with horses, have been utterly life changing for Dustin. The other revelation was the peacefulness it brought into my own hectic life. At the time, I was working full time as the Vice President of Talent and Development for a production company in New York City. My days were long and full, and the balance was tough, but as soon as I was in the barn, I began to decompress.
Four years ago, we had the opportunity to lease our own horse. Remington was a broken-down rescue horse, viciously abused, underweight with whip marks all over. The barn owner rescued him from the auction block. Since he couldn’t be a trail horse, she thought he’d be a good project for Dustin and me. Although he was not the prettiest horse I’d ever seen, my son and Remington connected. I thought this was meant to be and decided to go for it.
Everyone in my life thought I was crazy, but my perspective has always been that, when doors open, we should walk through and see what’s there. We leased the horse and it was great for a while– there were so many moments of joy for my son. We realized we needed to relocate to a barn with indoor facilities when we suffered through a tough winter. We moved to a barn closer to home and went every day until 6 pm, knowing this was good for Dustin. He always wanted a job, so together with his occupational therapist, horse trainer and behaviorist, we met at the barn and created storyboards with horse and barn related jobs that he had to complete every day before he rode. This evolved into a program for him. He had visuals of his daily chores with areas for check marks as he completed his chores, organized by barn, horse, and feeding tasks. Every day after school, he’d go to the barn and work on his list of chores; feeding the horse, cleaning the stall, filling clean water buckets, counting out hay flakes.
One day, Oberson Emmerich, Director of New Horizons Center for Autism at the time, randomly came into the barn asking if he could borrow a saddle for an event at his center. He saw Dustin’s charts and asked about what we were doing. What struck him, was how different Dustin’s “program” was from the conventional therapeutic riding programs his students had done where they just rode a horse for a half hour and went home. I explained that the difference was my son needed the relationship with the horse. He gets a lot of pride seeing a dirty stall become clean, seeing food, water, bedding all set out, grooming and making the horses breakfast and dinner.
Seeing the potential in what we had created, Oberson wanted to do the same with his students and asked if we would partner with his organization. This is something that I had been thinking about for a while. Dustin’s program had evolved organically as we saw his abilities and talents emerge and grow in a supportive environment. To be able to share this with other children would be a gift.
At the time my job was very stressful and emotionally demanding but I felt compelled to agree to partnering. The owner of the barn, who did not embrace Dustin or the thought of autistic adults at her facility, told us to find a new home for our horses. Down and desperate to find another home for our horses, but not defeated, I asked Oberson to give me six months while I figured things out.
My plans developed as far as a half-formed idea of a non-profit farm, when my friend, who happens to be a realtor, told me about a new listing for a farm in Atlantic Highlands, a beautiful and “horsey” area not far from where we were currently living in New Jersey. The property had everything we would want–a house, barn, goat house and even a chicken coop, but the price was hovering at the pipe dream level! My husband thought I had lost my mind when I told him we should buy a farm. He said okay, but with a couple of challenges – find someone to buy our house at a high price and convince the owner of the farm to sell at a much lower price. Of course, we didn’t think any of that would really happen, but I was a powerful combination of desperate and determined. I had a gut feeling this was the right solution for Dustin, and it would be the change our entire family needed at the time.
Our home went up for sale, I made the low-ball offer on the farm and the offer was declined. But as fate would have it, the owner had a deep and sentimental attachment to her property and didn’t want any offers that included tearing down the house. Taking a chance, I wrote her a long letter and spilled my heart out about my plans for the non-profit. I also told her I was in love with her property and implored her to consider my offer. I waited, trying to have faith and expect a miracle. To our surprise, she said yes, and my amazing financial advisor husband somehow made the rest all happen! As a family, we decided to take the leap and do this, and Lucky Star Farm was born!
We founded a 501c3, called Peace, Love and Horses. Dustin was appointed Barn Manager, responsible for the management of barn operations. We welcomed New Horizon’s first group of students in for a data trial with behaviorists, ABA therapists and a psychologist. The first day was rough and emotional. Because these six, severely autistic, non-verbal young adults had never been to a farm, the smells, and sounds were over stimulating. Slowly, the students became acclimated and started to show up ready to work. Each student had his or her own horse and stall to care for, throughout the entire six weeks. Their sense of ownership and accomplishment grew over time, and by the end of the six weeks, all were at or above being able to accomplish 90% of their learned tasks independently, which was nothing short of another miracle!
What Dustin and the first trial group gained from our program, is what we try to replicate for every child that comes to Lucky Star Farm. It is the sense of pride in taking ownership of your chores and the ability to nurture and care for something other than yourself. Working in the barn with the horses sparks feelings of pride, self-esteem and accomplishment for the students.
We asked Dustin to think about what his vision for the barn was, what did he want other people who came to the farm to experience there. At the time, he was learning about the U.S. Constitution in school, so he decided to express his vision as a constitution for Peace Love and Horses. It crystalized in his mind what we were trying to do with the farm, and he understood that it wasn’t just for him. We were sharing something special with other people who needed what we had found.
A Constitution of Peace, Love and Horses:
“I declare that everyone at Peace, Love and Horses is safe, happy and accepted for who they are and feel love. Everyone has the opportunity to do the right thing and feel calm. We take care of animals and each other”.
And he’s exactly right. That’s what we do every single day here.
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