Rocky’s long tongue flaps out from his toothless mouth as he trots around a child, whose goal is to “go catch a horse.” But this isn’t merely a game of tag; it’s a therapy session — for children with autism.
Rocky, a sorrel, 31-year-old quarter horse, is one of six at Scottsdale’s Hunkapi program, a therapeutic, nonprofit organization that uses horses to help habilitate physically and mentally disabled people.
In consequence of a horse’s highly receptive nature, the animal’s body language allows Hunkapi therapists to observe a person’s interactions on an intimate level, all while teaching them how to ride, take care of and relate to a horse.
“We’re watching how people approach problems,” says Hunkapi Executive Director Terra Schaad. Therapists look at how a person solves problems, their energy and creativity level and how much anxiety they can handle.
Because horses largely communicate through body language and mirror the emotions of others, Hunkapi staff is able to observe and interpret the horse’s interaction with clients.
“We feed that information back to the client, saying, ‘this is what we’re noticing the horse doing; tell me where this is also showing up in your life,’ ” Schaad says.
To start, every patient must “go catch a horse.”
In the exercise, Schaad releases a horse into an arena to run around freely, and then the client must catch the animal without any instructions.
She says people are often not completely comfortable with horses, and that causes their innate qualities to emerge.
“It gives our therapists an edge because there is a relationship being built where we don’t have to actually see what’s happening or pry because the horse is already telling us what’s happening, and the client doesn’t feel we’re being as invasive,” Schaad says. “It’s a very tangible way to see behaviors that are not working for them anymore, and we can quickly create new behaviors that create a different outcome.”
One reason a horse is an efficient therapeutic tool for autistic individuals is their ability to relate to the animal through similar frontal lobe functionality.
Many of Hunkapi’s autistic clients have sensory integration dysfunction, which can increase sensitivity to visual, tactile or auditory stimulants past what is deemed as normal functionality.
“They have this ability to read energetically the horse and create a bond that is a lot of time a lot more intense, a lot more real and a lot more accurate than even an abled-body person,” Schaad says.
The weekly therapeutic process typically begins privately, and then transitions into a group level to increase social skills.
To the extent a child or individual is physically and emotionally able, Hunkapi includes them in all aspects of a horse’s care — from the grooming process, learning to brush and clean their horse, to teaching how to lead a horse and be safe on the ground around them.
Schaad says physically disabled participants find working with horses a fun and interactive way to strengthen weak muscles, and to improve balance and flexibility.
Some patients initially struggle with overcoming fear about a horse’s sheer size and negative assumptions of biting, but after 15 or 20 minutes, the fear dissipates and the person is riding.
Hunkapi also offers team building exercises, where horses are released into an arena, and the group tries to catch the horses under a given set of parameters, which can take up to an hour.
Schaad has found that, similar to the individual catching exercise, the horses mirror how the humans behaves. If the group is bickering among each other, horses may not be cooperative and will keep their distance.
“No matter how much they’re able to keep it together in an environment that is comfortable and safe to them, such as their work environment, when they’re put into an environment that’s foreign … a lot of time negative behaviors or positive leadership qualities come out.”
Schaad says the scenario is ripe with uncertainty because most groups don’t know, intuitively, how to stop and catch the horse. She observes how autonomous or social the group wants to be, how ambiguous its creativity and problem solving is and the relationship being built with the horse.
The Hunkapi program plans to continue its growth through other therapeutic avenues that are transferable to horse interaction.
Over the next three months, a low-ropes course, yoga and archery will be added to the Hunkapi’s current services to accentuate the physical development required for horseback riding. The counseling and coaching program is also growing, with more emphasis being added to a leadership perspective.
For more information about Hunkapi’s services, visit hunkapi.org.