When sixteen-year-old Dee (not her real name) started coming to Emerge Equine, her mom was looking for a program that would help with Dee’s confidence and anxiety. Dee experiences life through the filter of ASD, developmental coordination disorder and Social Anxiety Performance-Based disorder.
She had done a therapy program with horses before through her school, and although they were not able to get her to ride a horse, she did seem to connect with a couple of the older horses as she is an animal person. Getting Dee to ride was not the priority in coming to Emerge Equine. Her mom simply wanted her in a program where she would get out of the house, make connections and continue getting more comfortable around horses.
The first time she visited, Dee and her mom joined me for a slow walk around the farm. We met some of the horses and kept it all very low key and simple. I wanted to get to know Dee and get a sense of if we would be a good fit for her. She liked being around the horses and our friendly barn cats. Although our conversations consisted of me saying or asking something, and Dee not responding or responding with a grunt, I didn’t make a big deal about it or ask her for more than she was willing to give.
Dee began to visit weekly and we have developed a routine. When she arrives, I meet her near the car. Our old barn cat, Mickey, meets her and rubs on her shoes while Dee pets her. This is the ice-breaker and the giggle initiator! Her mom waits in the car, sometimes with the window down.
“Thanks so much! I can’t get over how much she smiles and laughs when she is there. Does a mom’s heart good!” “We have not seen her so happy in years.” “…I was kind of dreading her missing it.” “I’ve not seen a smile that big in a while.” “Honestly seeing her so happy is therapy for me.”Mom
We walk to the barn and take time to pet the cats. This is an activity that is important to Dee. She has started to advocate for herself by asking to do this before we go to get her horse. This physically serves as a good body-stretch and core engagement. Dee reaches up to Fred, who likes to sit on the top of the upper cupboard and peek over the edge. She reaches down to Mickey who circles her legs. If Fred jumps down to the counter, Dee reaches them both at once, giggling and talking to them, trying to convince them to both go on one surface to make it easier for her. The cats clearly adore this attention, and I’m convinced they wait for her each Tuesday.
Once the cats are well petted and talked to, Dee tells them it’s time to go get her horse. She selects the specific halter and rope from the hook on the barn wall and we walk together to the horse pen. She watches to see if Mickey is following us and talks to her as we go.
“She always looks forward to it. I have noticed a lot of growth in her just in the last two visits.” “You have definitely created a safe place for her to express herself!”Mom
When we first started spending time together, conversations between us were extremely limited. Dee would follow instructions but didn’t answer questions or say much to me. She would talk to the cats more than she would talk to me. My response to this was to look for ways to engage at her level, with her interests. It’s not about me, it’s about where we come together to be related.
After a few weeks, she came to her session following a visit to the wolf sanctuary. That was the first day she brought up a topic and told me details of what she saw and learned there. Although she didn’t respond to my questions at first, she did expand on what she was interested in. I worked on how I asked questions to facilitate her opening up and the next week when I asked about it, she told me more details and it was a rewarding experience to connect and hear her share more about the sanctuary.
“I couldn’t get over her jumping out of the car right away. She really had a great day. It carried right over into her occupational therapy which she usually hates but she was even laughing during it too! Makes my day too!”Mom
Focusing on Dee’s interest in animals has been a wonderful window into her spirit. She has begun to tell me about cats that are cared for and tamed by someone she follows online. She regularly shares about her dogs, her bird and cats she’s met in the neighbourhood. She has told me about childhood friends and memories of growing up.
Along with our cat petting and chatting activities, Dee has been practising the physical activities involved with handling a horse. She learned to lead the horse, groom it with the correct tools and even clean the hooves.
Physical activities including standing, being aware of where her feet are in relation to the horse’s feet, grooming the whole horse, paying attention to details such as if there is bedding on the coat, choosing the brushes for each part of the horse, lifting and cleaning out the hooves, asking and cueing the horse to move. Some of the small motor skills we practice include being able to successfully handle the halter and buckle, tie the rope, and feed tiny treats to the cats.
“One of the doctors I work for was so impressed that she was cleaning hooves. She said that it is such a great exercise for her to be doing. Her occupational therapists are pretty happy about this too so they take it easy on her on Mondays. I can even see her confidence increasing when she is leading the horses. Honestly, the best thing we ever did was take her to your program.”Mom
Over the last few weeks, I have encouraged Dee to halter Rock by putting the lead rope over her neck, undoing the buckle and putting the halter on. For many weeks, I would have to help her and then we would continue on our way. After about 8 weeks, I videoed her as she undid the buckle, put the halter on the horse’s nose and did the buckle back up so I could share the accomplishment with her mom. And she followed that task up with tying our special slip knot almost entirely on her own!
“With her developmental coordination disorder, she struggles so much. She has never been able to even tie her shoes so it is great to see her working on this.”Mom
She can now lead the horse on her own and she takes the role of leader by getting the horse to go, keeping it moving when it stops to eat and knowing the destination. She has settled into the routine of our time together and also deals with the change of plans as they come. This is punctuated with our laughter and Dee sharing her experience of life with me as she has become positively chatty. She expands on observations of what she thinks the cats are thinking, how they are interacting and their behaviour.
“She is so happy! I could hear her giggling a bunch. Thanks so much, Linda.” “I am so happy that she has found something she enjoys so much.Mom
I’m finding her to be more engaged every day. When we went into the horse pen last week, she began talking to the other horses, reaching out to let them sniff her and laughing. She talked to Crystal as Crystal sniffed her. Then she laughed as Chip seemed envious and wanted to come with us. The whole session went that way. Towards the end, she must have spent a good 10 minutes telling me about her beloved old dog and how she would like to get another special dog. She had such a full laugh at one point that her whole face lit up! Like completely!! It was beautiful to see.
“I had a meeting with her FSCD social worker and all her therapists this week and they all feel that the work you do with her is a large part of the improvements we are seeing.”Mom
We didn’t start with any hard and fast goals with Dee, but what we are seeing is actually quite astounding. She is in a calm and caring structure. I challenge her to try things, yet don’t leave her feeling bad if she isn’t ready or able to complete it. I offer accommodations to help her be comfortable, such as a stool when her feet hurt and let her figure out how to accomplish the tasks her own way.
I am very grateful to work with Dee. She is opening up with me and it is something that fills my own heart with joy.
Learn more about the personal development and support programs offered at Emerge Equine.
Compiled and written by Linda Hopp.
Quotes from the mother of a teenaged client. January 2021