The Magic of Izzy
How horses help autistic children
By Elinor Spokes
Special to the Jewish Times
In 2004, travel writer Rupert Isaacson traveled with his wife and 5-year-old son Rowen to Mongolia to find a cure for his son’s autism. The resulting book, “The Horse Boy: A Father’s Quest to Heal His Son” (Little, Brown and Company, 2009) and the subsequent film chronicled the journey to a place where Rowan would have the opportunity to ride horses in concert with being treated by shamen or healers. Isaacson hoped that this combination of therapies would lead to a breakthrough in his son’s condition.
It was when Rowan was on a horse, said Isaacson in an interview with “ABC News,” that the child was calm and it was the only time the tantrums would stop. Although the father contended that the horse therapy didn’t cure Rowan’s autism, it helped to heal some if its worst symptoms.
Autism, which is a general term to describe a group of complex developmental brain disorders, is reported to impact an estimated 1.5 million people in the United States and one in every 110 children. Currently there is no cure, but therapies such as therapeutic riding, have, anecdotally, given some hope and promise to parents of children in the autism spectrum, who are searching for ways to improve the quality of their lives.
In the Baltimore area, parents of autistic children don’t need to travel to the ends of the earth to find therapeutic riding. The Rose of Sharon Equestrian School (ROSES) in Glen Arm provides lessons in horsemanship to children and adults with autism and a range of other disabilities. It is one of several programs sought out by Jewish families with children who have special needs in order to give their youngsters a chance to engage and socialize.
“Horses,” says Joan Twining, founder of ROSES “have the potential to facilitate change, growth, and healing in their human companions.” Twining, who is also a horsewoman with a professional background in teaching special education, notes that therapeutic riding provides development of core strength, self-confidence and self-esteem.
Izzy is one of three horses used in ROSES’ program and is a favorite of the students there — especially of 9-year-old Julia Forchheimer, a Summit Park Elementary School third grader who has been riding at the equestrian facility for the past five years. In that time, her parents have seen tremendous growth in her as well as changes in her ability to transition to new activities and situations, often a challenge for children in the autism spectrum. They credit the equine therapy for much of Julia’s progress in this area.
Stuart Forchheimer, Julia’s father, remembers her first riding lessons. “Julia was initially timid and shy around the horses and it took a few sessions for her to get comfortable,” he says. To help the children with their comfort level around the horses and ease their transition to the activity, he notes that Twining works with the kids at each session, telling them what activity will come next.
The firmly established routine helps to build confidence in the children. “She takes the kids from activity to activity, forcing them to interact socially with other kids, adults and the animals themselves. Even on days when Julia says she doesn’t want to ride, Joan knows what buttons to push to motivate Julia,” says Forchheimer.
Since transition is often difficult for many children with autism, routine is built into every session at the riding facility. Each session begins with the grooming of the horses and preparing the horses to ride.
Twining also notes that one of the keys to the success of her program is the opportunity for the children to engage socially, specifically with the horses. She notes, “Kids who often avoid eye contact, as many children with autism do, begin to look for that contact in the horses.”
Deb Gordon conducted extensive research on programs that proved to be beneficial for children on the autism spectrum when she discovered equine therapy and ROSES. “All children with autism are different,” she says. “I wanted to find a way to bring Danny (her son) out of his shell, find him a hobby. He is very empathetic and loves animals so this seemed perfect for him. And when you hear anecdotally that something works for others, you figure, why not?”
Danny, an 8-year-old at Chatsworth Elementary School, was excited about the horses. “Riding gave him a sense of accomplishment,” she adds. The changes she notes in Danny are his attentiveness to the instruction given by Twining and that he is completely present, excited and happy when he is there.
Austin Geller was 10-years-old when he began equine therapy at ROSES and continued lessons there for two years. His father, Jon Geller, says that it was because of the progress he made in therapeutic riding and Austin’s willingness to ride, that he was encouraged to seek out other activities for Austin.
Now 13 and a seventh-grader at Cockeysville Middle School, Austin no longer has the time to ride due to his participation in the baseball, soccer and bowling teams of the Conquerors League, an adaptive league of Parkville Recreation. “When Austin began riding, we were not sure what to expect. Austin had been timid with animals but he really took to the horses,” says Geller. “I was amazed at Austin’s attention and his ability to control the horse in a very short time. He became very disciplined about riding.”
“As a parent with a child in the autism spectrum,” reflects Gordon, “I want my child to have experiences like other kids and participate in activities that have an element of fun. If the activity also has a layer of therapy included, it is a win-win.”