One of the challenges we all face is humanizing our passions. During a Counselors Academy event I got to know CAPRSA Member Sheryl Barto, Principal of O Communications. After reviewing her Instagram feed, it was clear she was matching her passion for people with her love of horses. I asked Sheryl to share how she is involved in her community and raising awareness for our profession. Also, how appropriate that April is National Autism Month! - Tom Garrity
In 2012 I was handling pro bono PR for the local affiliate of Light It Up Blue, an international day which shines a spotlight on autism. I have a son, who is now an adult, on the autism spectrum. One initiative for our Aspen event was to feature celebrity autism parents. Holly Robinson Peete, star of 21 Jump Street, and Rupert Isaacson, author of The Horse Boy, were parents of young boys with autism. Wait – Horse Boy? I was a life-long, horse-obsessed girl AND I had a son on the autism spectrum. How could I have not heard of this guy? He had a book titled The Horse Boy, and an award- winning documentary by the same name, which was featured at the Sundance Film Festival. I should also add, I really wanted to be a horse trainer when I graduated high school – but my mom wouldn’t let me.
The Horse Boy story is based on a father, Rupert Isaacson, accidentally learning his autistic son did better on the back of a horse. While he was in Aspen, we arranged for him to hold a demonstration of The Horse Boy Method at a local ranch. He and his assistant took a horse they had never worked with and showed the audience how they could teach a child with autism how to add, subtract, divide, multiple, learn geography, and literacy – all from the back of a horse. I didn’t know how he did it. I had put my dreams of a life with horses aside but now I could see how I could help not only my son but others. I was moved to tears, and knew this was my new calling.
Through another series of interesting life coincidences, I ended up in Austin, Texas, for a journalism fellowship later that year – even though I applied to Arizona, where my son was going to attend a life skills school for autism. It turned out Rupert was based in Austin, so I decided to visit his ranch in person. I began training later in 2012 then opened my own Horse Boy program, Smiling Goat Ranch in 2015.
The Horse Boy Method uses horses, movement and a natural environment. What I love is the science behind it. The problem is most people with autism have an overactive amygdala causing their brains to be flooded with cortisol, the stress hormone. What is the antidote to cortisol? The feel good hormone which is called oxytocin. Our bodies produce oxytocin when the pelvis is rocked in rhythm – this can be triggered by a rocking chair, swinging, sitting on a ball and the biggest oxytocin producer is cantering on the back of a horse.
So this is the key difference between ours and other therapeutic riding programs. We ride with the child/adult to create the rhythms that aid communication or drive the horse in long-lines if the person is too big to ride with. Leading a horse destroys these rhythms – the horse must be ridden or driven in long lines to create them.
Horse Boy is now in seven countries with 1,000 practitioners worldwide serving 12,000 families weekly.
The method is sanctioned by Dr. Temple Grandin who is perhaps the most famous person with autism and a professor of animal science at Colorado State University. She has written many books on animal behavior, autism and revolutionized the livestock industry by making slaughterhouses more humane. Rupert sought mentorship from Temple as he was developing his programming, and she confirmed people on the spectrum and with other neurosensory conditions learn better when they are moving.
My PR skills came back into play when Temple and Rupert decided to embark on a speaking circuit last year. These two autism luminaries joined forces to share their perspective on ways parents and educators can start readying children for the journey to adulthood. They share strategies on kinetic learning and introducing movement skills into the classroom to engage the learning centers of the brain. They started this work for children on the autism spectrum and are also expanding to neurotypical students.