John is convinced that he can read his horse, Chance's, mind. At a recent show in Tulsa, OK, John met and chatted with Chance's former trainer who recognized the horse and wanted to meet his new rider. John shared with him "I have a connection with this horse but he's not telling me what he's capable of."
In 2004, when John and his family first visited Equest Therapeutic Horsemanship in Wylie, TX, it could be said that he was not communicating his own potential, and like his horse, there is much that John was capable of that he could not verbalize. John, who has been diagnosed with Autism, had difficulty going anywhere or trying anything new and would become overwhelmed very easily. Just doing everyday normal activities could be exhausting and frustrating for all involved. In fact, the John’s parents felt some trepidation about their first visit to Equest. How would it go? John loved animals but he struggled with social skills which made making friends difficult.
Fortunately, John found a couple of connections with the instructors and the volunteers at Equest which helped to ease his anxiety that first day. John’s mother, Pam, said of her earliest experiences at Equest, “The entire program fostered a familiar, loving place of safety for him and our whole family.”
A good start didn't mean all went smoothly from there. Right off the bat, John's understanding of horses was derived from television and pictures. The reality is that horses are big-they weigh 1,200 pounds-plus, they snort, stomp, knock their buckets, and are very three-dimensional. When things were overwhelming for him, John would lash out. He didn't know how to calmly verbalize his feelings and it was the only way he had then to express his frustration. John’s mother recalls one such moment, “I clearly recall an incident when the leader of John’s horse was told to “tie up” the lead rope so John would be in control from the saddle. Struggling with this new freedom, he yelled, quiet coherently, “I HATE YOU!” at his instructor. That doesn’t sound nice to the typical parent, but for a seldom verbal child who would hit or run away, it was great”.
Remarkably, John’s improvement in communication was rapid and dramatic with equine therapy. “The biggest change, to me, was that on the way home from the barn, John and I could have a complete conversation about things in the real world, and not just the world inside his head. John learned how to express himself with words on the back of a horse. “
Gradually, things began to come together in other aspects of John’s life. He got used to the horses and they no longer frightened him. His social skills improved; the patience and acceptance of staff, instructors and volunteers created an environment where John could practice and reinforce appropriate responses. John’s family agrees, “My favorite recurring moment is the feeling of relaxation I get at Equest”, says his mother, Pam, “where I know John is accepted and I do not have to be vigilant in monitoring his whereabouts or his behavior. It is a place where he is independent and successful!”
John participates in sports riding and drill team classes at Equest. Sports riding classes allow the students to learn the skills of horseback riding in different disciplines. John works on Western, English, working trail and showmanship skills. In drill team class, John has to work with a team of riders and execute maneuvers with a closely matched partner. In all his classes at Equest, John has learned sequencing, cause and effect, relationship skills, and patience. Pam asserts, “Equest has certainly helped in all aspects. It is evident in the transformation of anxiety John experienced early on of a large and unpredictable animal, to actually being in control of these fabulous horses. John learned to control his own body in order to control the movement of the horse in a predictable manner. "I remember one class where John was riding an especially responsive horse; John was not aware of how much his body moved in space, and this lovely horse was trying to respond to each signal John’s body movements were giving her. It was as if the horse was dancing; John was confused and frustrated. His instructor got John’s attention and talked him through sitting quietly and thereby calming the horse.”
It is well recognized around the Equest barn that there is just something very special about the bond between John and his current horse partner, Chance (whose registered name is Good Terms a Blaze). Pam explains, “I think the extra special bond he has with Chance is because Chance loves John, too. I don’t know horses well, but I am told by the Equest authorities that it is true.” John says Chance is special “because he is so cute”. It is interesting to note that Chance, a chestnut-colored American Quarter Horse, has a habit of laying his ears back when someone approaches. This is usually a sign of anger or warning from a horse, but for Chance it seems to be his friendly greeting face. John understands Chance’s intentions and is always happy to see him react in this manner. Pam seems to understand the significance as well. “I am just guessing,” she says, “but I think having your facial expressions misinterpreted is something John, living with Autism, can understand and relate to.” As his riding skills progress, John, who is now 14 years old and in the 8th grade, gains confidence and takes pride in being an equestrian. He is on the show team, traveling with Equest to various events. Attending these horse shows provides so much more than an opportunity for a trophy or ribbon - performing under the appropriate pressure of competition builds resiliency, an independent judge rating your skills is validating, and learning to handle victory and defeat instills good sportsmanship. These are all life lessons taught and reinforced by Team Equest. “John has evolved to quite the horseman and enjoys competition,” states Equest Program Director, Amy Causey. “He has come a long way from earning participation ribbons to understanding the fine detail it takes to be successful on a show horse. It is remarkable to watch John evolve and wonderful to see his confidence grow with each challenge.”
John’s school principals are so supportive of the equestrian therapy program that they have always approved his absences for horse shows. They have all believed strongly in the need for his participation in those real world opportunities. “Having just returned from a show in Tulsa”, Pam recalls, “we went to meet the new principal at John’s school. John showed him photos from the horse show, especially one with his 3 National Snaffle Bit Association trophy. The principal expressed his admiration at ‘the biggest trophy I have seen’ and he now knows about the special ability of one of his special students.”
Currently, the goals for John include developing a work ethic that will allow him to be successfully employed when he finishes school. He has grown to the extent that he has begun to volunteer at Equest on Saturdays for a couple of hours. He is working in the barn under the supervision of the barn managers. This is a valuable lesson that he is learning with help of a fabulous team who have his well-being and success at heart. It is a challenge for him, but he enjoys his success. What is the next chapter of John’s success story?
John is thinking he would like to have a driver’s license in the future. His mother claims, “You can be sure he will be enrolled in the Carriage Driving course at Equest to help him along in that process!” John has bravely transformed from a boy who had difficulty going new places to a confident teenager who can stay at new hotels, eat new foods, roll with the noise and chaos of show arenas, and go along with the hurry-up-and-wait atmosphere of a show schedule. He is more in tune with the people around him as well. In a recent show class, when another rider's horse cantered instead of trotting (thus losing points), John approached the rider afterward to console and encourage. "If the class had been judged on who controlled their horse the best, you would have won," he told her. Pam couldn’t be more thrilled at her son’s progress, “It has given John a recreational activity outside of his room, something he can enjoy throughout his life. He can share this aspect of his life with others and he now has many horse friends!"
Whether or not Chance is keeping a secret from John about what he is capable of, it's no secret anymore what John is capable of. He is, and continues to become, a young man his family is proud of. Equest, together with the John’s family's commitment to providing John every opportunity to excel, is helping him reach his potential.
To donate to Equest in honor of John, click here.