“I Wish People Had Ears Like Horses”
Her mom Lynn said when Rachel was seven; she took her to three different child therapists for what she called “traditional talk therapy.” Rachel hated it and, after a while, refused to go. Most of the time Rachel, was simply unable to sit still. Although there are no drugs that can cure autism, Rachel was periodically put on medications—including haloperidol, thioridazine and fluphenazine (all antipsychotics) and carbamazepine (an anticonvulsant and mood stabilizer)—in the hope that one of them might improve some of her everyday functions. Lynn said, “It was like there was something inside her that kept making her move, which she couldn’t turn off.”
The first time Rachel arrived at the horse farm, her equine counselor Sherri led Rachel over to a large gray horse named Alfie. Rachel stopped about two feet in front of Alfie and looked up at his soft, dark eyes gazing down at her. After about a minute, Rachel lifted her hand toward Alfie’s nose. Alfie dropped his head and sniffed Rachel’s fingers. Rachel quickly pulled her hand away, turned, and walked toward the gate. Alfie followed her.
When she got to the gate, she turned back and was amazed to see Alfie standing right behind her. Sherri walked over, looked at Rachel, and said, “Alfie likes you.” Rachel’s mouth opened in an overwhelming smile. As Lynn told me this, she became emotional and said, “I had never seen Rachel smile like that before in her whole life.” She could tell that Alfie was interested in her and that it didn’t matter to him that she was autistic.
Horses reveal their thoughts and feelings with their body language and behavior. They do not ask, demand, or expect anything from us. They want to feel safe, comfortable, and get along. When Rachel experienced this with Alfie, it was unlike any interaction with another person she had known. Lynn said that Alfie showed Rachel that she could trust him, and if she could trust him, one day she might learn to trust people. As Rachel continued at Good Hope, she started interacting with other girls and their horses.
Horses don’t see a child with autism. They see a child. Autistic children know this, and it feels good to them. In order for anyone, autistic or otherwise, to grow, heal, and have positive relationships with others, they must first have a positive relationship with themselves. Horses have the ability to make humans feel good about themselves. As with so many other men, women, and children, horses have enabled some of those with autism to become more confident, more trusting, and to feel, even if only for a moment, love for themselves and others.