Back in high school, when my dear mother was desperate to help me with the never-ending stream of problems that I faced, she opted to try healing with horses. Specifically horse back riding, or hippotherapy, which by the way, has nothing to do with hippos.
This is the part where I should explain my feelings regarding hippotherapy. However, you should know that I have great talent at blocking out huge chunks of time that may or may not have been traumatic. What you are about to read is my fuzzy recollection of my first day of horseback riding therapy. What is clear, however, is the fact that that day will never be forgotten.
I remember my mom and I walking into the place. The first thing that hit us was the smell. It was hard for me to get past. Everyone else seemed immune, or at least, mostly unaffected by the stench.
We were greeted by a cheery lady (her real name I can’t remember, so I will call her Susan) who gave me a helmet to wear. I think it was blue. But who cares what color it was. Bottom line: I was HOT. See for yourself:
We went and sat with her in a tiny room with appalling lighting. My mom explained why I was here and how sensitive I was to, well, everything. She explained my severe sensory issues and my recent diagnosis of ASD. Susan said she understood my situation. That was too easy, I thought.
Susan walked my mom and I through a short hallway that led to a door. “This is the barn,” she said. The door opened up to a massive open space covered with hay.
Then she walked us to another door that opened up to stables. We opened the door and I nearly lost bladder control because this was the first thing I saw:
“She’s the largest breed of horse in the world,” said Susan. Also, the most insane-looking.
The next thing I knew, the horses all started smashing their hooves into their stable doors. BANG BANG BANG BANG!
Well, that was all I needed. Now that I was reduced to a pathetic crying blob in a helmet, Susan began to understand the seriousness of my situation.
I was ushered quickly into the large barn where I waited for my horse.
My horse, I thought. I imagined something regal, majestic, and strong. Something along the lines of this:
Heck, I’d even settle for this:
However, when my horse came into the barn, it looked more like this:
Ok. So it wasn’t what I had pictured in my mind….at all. Still, I would not give up hope. His name was Neil, I was told. “He’s very relaxed and he just loves everyone!” said Susan with delight.
Neil was a nearly as round as he was high. A blue blanket with yellow stars covered his back. I am unable to comment about Neil’s intelligence level at this time, but I’m certain it wasn’t too high. Still, there was an strong air of calm about him that I definitely appreciated.
I walked up a set of stairs and was placed onto Neil’s back. Although he could’ve passed for a miniature pony, I still felt disoriented and high-up off the ground. My grip tightened on his reins as we slowly started to walk out the barn and to the trails. The cheery lady guided Neil and another older woman walked next to me as I rode.
We barely walked three feet though when Neil stopped abruptly and I heard plopping sounds somewhere behind me. “Oh, he’s very relaxed,” Susan said, “he must like you!”
I was all like:
To my horror, I quickly realized that Neil was a popping-machine. It was practically his favorite activity. Outside the barn, the two women guided Neil down a short dirt path. “We’re going to try this hill now, ok?”
She made that sound like a question, but I knew she wasn’t really asking me. It was more of a command: WE ARE GOING OVER THE HILL KID.
With my already over-stimulated state from the stable trauma, and my terrible body-spatial awareness, going over the hill wasn’t going to be pretty.
I basically thought I was going to die. Neil probably thought so too, although he never said anything. He just kept pooping.
When I thought it couldn’t possibly get any worse, Susan said “Let’s walk Neil through this stream up here. Maybe he could stop and have a drink too.” Susan’s joyous spirit was making me nauseous. Maybe Neil could poop on her.
After several upsetting, sensory-crushing experiences, all sense of perspective was lost. Everything seemed bigger, more horrible and dangerous. This was no stream we were crossing…
Nobody cared though, so I buried my face into Neil’s mane and placed a death grip on his face. He probably disliked that, but again, he didn’t say anything to me. He pooped though.
Finally sensing my distress, Susan told me that we were going to walk around the ring. The ring was a dirt oval surrounded by a wooden fence. When we got there, another teen girl was riding a muscular black horse. I entered the ring, and the difference between the two of us and our horses was striking, if not, hilariously noticeable.
I sensed a air of superiority from her. Neil stopped pooping, so something was definitely going on. She was a professional rider on a champion horse. I knew she thought of me as one of “those kids” on “that horse.” And actually, I was. YEA. I WAS ONE OF THOSE KIDS ON THAT HORSE. So as she left the ring, I said out loud:
I’m not sure she heard me, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that Neil and I survived steep mountains and the raging river. We braved the dirt paths and Susan’s annoyingly sunny demeanor.We were a united force. We were one.
And so my day of therapeutic horseback riding came to an end. I rode around the ring endlessly, somewhat enjoying the consistency of the circle. No hills, or waterways. Just dirt. It was all so…. unsurprising. Just how I like it.
And I learned that Neil may not have been the most impressive-looking creature, but he certainly had the confidence to carry me – having meltdown while clawing at his eyeballs – without flinching. I guess that’s why he’s a top-notch therapy horse. I’d bet ya that that other horse couldn’t do HALF of what Neil does.
By the way, here is a picture of the type of horse that Neil is. This isn’t him, but it looks just like him.
Good boy, Neil. Poop your way to victory.
I enjoyed that…it says so much…. Love, Aunt Joan
I wish I’d had a Neil The Pooping Champion horse the first time people strong-armed me into riding a horse. It was one of the most traumatic experiences of my life. Now I only go close to horses if it’s understood that I will not under any circumstances get up on one.
The OT recommended my son take up riding which initially, I thought a great idea because I’ve been a horsey person since forever really. (Think she was suggesting this more from the perspective helping his balance, posture and muscle but anyway)
The kids have always been familiar with the horses by default but I soon realised how inappropriate riding could actually be for someone with ASD, anxiety issues, sensory issues and Dyspraxia.
First of all, the horses are Clydesdale’s (as in Budweiser horses) which means they look terrifying to anyone that’s not used to horses.
They have gigantic faces, teeth, hooves and making loud clippety noises whenever they walk. As you mentioned, stable yards and horses are sometimes quite noisy and smelly. And dusty. Whereas I brush a horse and notice little specks here and there, Sam feels like someone has just tipped a 20kg bag of toxic waste into his eyes, nose, hair and ears.
I don’t feel comfortable letting him feed horses by hand because my reassurance that he won’t get nipped if he keeps his hand nice and flat goes right out the window once he spots the gnashers. His palm curls up a bag of Quavers and he panics and risks injury so it’s back to the method of holding out a carrot from 3ft away like sparklers on Bonfire Night.
Beginner, novice or expert rider – it’s high up. Add to that the creaking of leather from the saddle, clunking of the bit on teeth, dusty mane and sudden stops / sensation of being launched at warp speed if and when your big friend spots of a bit of grass on the way… The whole thing was torture for him so we knocked it on the head and I’m happy just letting him do the Firework Safety Marshall feeding technique.
I’ve heard a few people talk about how their first riding experience was horrendous and gather it’s more because of the tactics used by people not realising how unnerving it is than because of the horses. *Believe it or not, Shire’s and Clydesdale really are one of the best for first time, nervous riders. They’re gentle giants.
Anyway, Sam decided badminton is more up his street which works out well for everyone. 😀
Thanks for sharing your story of Sam. I too think that the general population has little awareness of how terrifying horses are, specifically sensory-speaking. That is why badminton is always the better choice. I completely agree with that one.
And I’m going to have to try the “Firework Safety Marshall Feeding Technique.” Sounds nice and …….safe. PERFECT.