The Healing Power of Horses

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Rowen Saunders tried everything to get through to her autistic son, Oak. “I would hold him, look into his eyes, talk to him, but it only seemed to push him away,” she says. Oak was diagnosed aged two and a half, after he stopped talking, started making a monotone humming noise, and became prone to inexplicable bouts of terrified rage. While he could arrange all his Thomas the Tank Engine toys in order of height, he was incapable of holding eye contact. It seemed as if nothing could get through to him; nothing, that is, until he encountered a horse for the first time.

“When Stella snuffled at him, and he patted her coat, he started giggling. He loved the experience,” Oak’s mother remembers, eight months after the family took part in one of Britain’s first Horse Boy Camps. They were set up by Rupert Isaacson, whose best-selling book of the same name describes his astonishing journey to help heal his own autistic son.

Isaacson noticed his boy’s affinity with horses when, aged four, he ran into a field full of them; the connection he instantly formed with a mare prompted his father to wonder if animals held the key to getting through to his world.

He went to extremes to test his theory, taking his son on a horseback odyssey across Mongolia, which dramatically improved the boy’s condition, leaving him free of agonising temper tantrums, and finally toilet-trained. Now, however, families like the Saunders do not have to venture so far.

saacson, who has set up the charitable Horse Boy Foundation to explore this field, has a simpler theory: “Being on a horse is just really cool.” At the camps, parents are encouraged to get in the saddle behind their children, which allows them to work on verbal skills together – Oak learnt to say “ready, steady, go!” – without the pressure of the face-to-face contact that many autistic children find difficult.

Animals cannot magic away autism, in all its complexity; in any case, for Isaacson at least, it is too engrained a part of his child’s identity to imagine eradicating. But according to some families, the simple, non-judgmental contact that animals offer can bring immense comfort, and help to break down the barriers of communication. As Mrs Saunders says, “It’s like finding the key to a locked gate.”

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