For a long time, I’ve been excited about trying hippotherapy with the J-Man, particularly since the horse farm field trip that originally got my hopes up was canceled due to weather last spring. After many months of waiting, our class was going again! Just our luck, it rained the morning of our field trip, which brought forth a long string of flowery language from me as I watched the weather report. But when the teacher told us at school that this farm has a covered riding area, I was all like, It’s on!
I was born in Kentucky, where you grow up at least in the vicinity of horses regardless of where you live or what you do. I’ve been on a horse like once, but I’ve found just being around horses to be calming. Not something I can easily explain. But with all the wonderful experiences I’ve read about or heard people having with therapeutic horseback riding, I have been looking forward to seeing how the J-Man would feel about it.
I confess that a lot of what I brought to this field trip was my own desire to find something the J-Man really loves, which brings with it a certain amount of selfish emotional baggage. I couldn’t help but have in my mind how I wanted his first adventure on a horse to go. It’s really not fair to him to hope for some revelatory experience every time we go do something new together, but I think it’s a natural part of our psyches as parents to feel like that. In a life filled with challenges, we want to help them discover what they love most and then go for it.
I’d call our first horse adventure a pretty good one – not revelatory – and one that we plan to do again. The farm has a good and caring vibe to it, and you can’t help but appreciate what all they do for special needs kids. They have a free event one Saturday a month where families with special needs kids – and siblings too – can come and ride horses and enjoy the farm. The horses almost seem to exude calm from every muscle, or at least that’s what it felt like to me.
The covered riding area was perfect for the rainy, gloomy day outside. Each of the kids took turns riding the horses – with varying degrees of excitement about it. I took the J-Man over to look at the horse he’d be riding (a beautiful, brown and black horse named Max) so he could get used to him while still in my arms. He was noticeably calm while we did this, even petting the horse – with a little nudging from me – without any noise or complaint or any real hesitation. His touch on the horse was slow, caring, and gentle. I would have given anything to know what he was feeling as he did that.
Max is not a very tall horse, which came in very handy. I didn’t measure him, but I’d guess maybe 5 feet and a bit. We chose him both for his calm and his smaller stature because we knew we’d be walking alongside the horse and holding the J-Man up there. He wouldn’t have anything to do with the helmet, so we just flanked him with arms and people.
When it came his turn to get on, he fought it some and protested, but I’ve certainly seen him fight things a whole lot more than that. The first lap around was primarily us trying to reassure him, help him calm down, and for us to not get stepped on by the horse. Just to throw in some humor of his own, Max deftly avoided a pile of manure by changing lanes and nearly pulling me into said pile while I was trying to sing the ‘Calm Down Song’ to the J-Man. (Thanks, Max.)
The second lap was a much different story. We felt his body begin to relax later in that first lap. All the good sensory gifts that horses can give were working their magic. On the second time around, the protests stopped, his face became thoughtful and serene, his back started to ease down into the saddle, and he held on to the pommel of the saddle instead of my arm. One by one, I could feel his little muscles unwind. Meanwhile, my heart was about to jump out of my chest with happiness.
You could tell he was ready to get off by the end of his two times around, and I took him down and gave him the biggest hug I could. And all the parents cheered for him because they know new and unknown things are so hard for him.
We tempted fate again by putting him on Max one more time a few minutes later. I think we didn’t allow the J-Man the necessary decompression time after a big sensory event as he was pretty upset the whole lap around. (We just did one lap this second time.) In hindsight, that was a lot to ask him to do in that time span, but there’s no way to know unless you try.
But, he did it. He stayed on the horse. He began to overcome those fears. He tried something very new and different. Getting on an animal that’s many, many times bigger than you – calm or not – is something I know a lot of neurotypical kids and parents would be too frightened to do themselves. And for that one lap around, he found something that right now only he really knows. But whatever it was, it was clear enough to us to know that we need to return and give it another go.
We plan to go again next month when they have their special Saturday event. Usually with him, the first time of anything stressful is always very difficult, but each successive time gets better. Given the meltdowns we can get just from moving his car seat to a different car, the fact that he didn’t have anywhere near that kind of reaction to the horse I think means something. What it means, though, only time and experience will tell.
For those of us whose kids can’t easily communicate what they love and what they don’t like, how they feel in new situations, or how they experience an event like this, this is largely what we have to do. We look for experiences that are geared to be affirming to our children and their needs, we go give it a try, and we see what happens.
[Continue on to see all the pictures!]
Not so much on the horse thing yet… but hey, he’s on!
Get me off this crazy thing!
He’s hanging in there! (or holding on for dear life!)
Oh! Maybe, just maybe…
Sitting almost like a little jockey. Notice how he’s sitting relaxed and holding on to the saddle instead of us!
Here’s he’s getting closer to looking like John Wayne leaning back in the saddle and striding confidently into town or something. Yay!
So, do you feel lucky, punk? 🙂
And the victory hug! Yay, J-Man!