Horse & Rider
Therapy Horses Gone Wild
Mingling with a herd of feral horses in an open field may not be a typical therapy activity, but it’s a regular occurrence at the Eye of a Horse program in St. Cloud, Florida, where wild Florida Cracker Horses play an important role in helping adolescents and adults with autism practice their social skills and gain confidence.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that approximately 1 in 59 children has been identified with autism spectrum disorder, a group of neurodevelopmental disorders characterized by difficulties with social interactions, verbal and non-verbal communication, and restricted repetitive patterns of behavior, interest, and activities. Although there are many resources available to children with autism, most end once the child turns 18. That’s when Eye of a Horse steps in.
Dr. Sandra Wise, a licensed psychologist, and Dean Van Camp, an experienced horse trainer, created the animal-assisted nature exposure therapy program in 2011 at the Crescent J Ranch, a working cattle ranch within the 4,700-acre Forever Florida nature preserve. Eye of a Horse serves a broad range of participants, but the program’s learning and psychotherapy opportunities for adults with autism are especially unique.
Unlike the horses at many equine-assisted therapy programs, those at Eye of a Horse are not bomb-proof. In fact, many are barely halter broke. Rather, these four-legged therapists are semiwild Florida Cracker Horses that roam the 1,350-acre ranch.
The Florida Cracker Horse is a rare breed whose bloodlines can be traced back to Spanish horses brought to Florida in the early 1500s by Juan Ponce de Le—n. The ranch’s 85-head herd is the largest in the world, and they are rarely handled by people. It is precisely their wild nature that makes them perfect for Eye of a Horse’s equine-assisted psychotherapy program.
Because the horses have limited human contact, they react to any and every action made by program participants. For those with autism—who typically struggle to understand and use non-verbal communication—the reactions of the horses provide clear lessons.
“What we are aiming at is for our students to learn something about themselves through the reaction that the horse gives to their behavior,” says Wise.
As the participants observe and interact with the horses, Wise asks them to explain why they think the horses react the way they do. What is this horse trying to communicate by pinning his ears and clenching his jaw? What is that horse showing by cocking his hind leg and letting his lower lip hang? Answering these questions helps the participants practice understanding the perspectives of others, a valuable social skill.
Though participants learn through Wise’s guidance, they also benefit
greatly from the simple yet powerful experience of just being in the presence of wild horses.
“It is not uncommon for individuals on the autism spectrum to have been subjected to a long history of bullying and social rejection,” says Wise. "Consequently, when our untrained animals choose to freely approach and interact with these students, the effect can be profoundly empowering, and the experience can enable them to begin building some confidence in their relationship skills.”
For many participants, the attention from horses makes them realize they are seen—something that can be a rare feeling. A student who shared that she had felt invisible all her life finally felt noticed after spending time with the wild horses. “My physical presence has a voice,” she said.
Eye of a Horse also has 12 trained horses that are utilized for activities like nature walks, where participants lead horses through trails within the preserve. Communicating with and maintaining control over their horses while traversing the trails provides an opportunity for students to practice skills like multi-tasking, situational awareness, and boundary setting.
“What [working with horses] enables them to do is be successful socially— some of them for the first time,” says Jodi Pierce, assistant program director at the College Internship Program, an organization that works with Eye of a Horse to help young adults with learning differences lead independent lives. “They are able to boost their self-esteem and confidence levels, and then they’re able to go out into the community and practice the skills they learned working with horses. They develop successful relationships.”
Eye of a Horse may look a little wilder than the traditional model of equine-assisted therapy, but that’s the entire point. It’s therapy disguised as an adventure.