When I first mentioned our planned African adventure to one of our fellow autism parents back home in Australia, she joked, ‘You’re not going all Horse Boy on us, are you, James?’
In case you’re unaware, The Horse Boy was a New York Times bestselling book when it was published in 2009. It chronicles the horse riding journey of Rupert Isaacson, his wife, and their then 5-year old autistic son, Rowan, through Mongolia to seek the help of shamans. I think even the author now acknowledges that benefits Rowan accrued on the journey were more due to horse riding than any mysticism.
In her review of the book, Temple Grandin (again) explains it best:
Children with autism need to be exposed to lots of interesting things and new experiences in order to develop. One of the reasons the trip to Mongolia was so beneficial was that Rowan could explore lots of fascinating things such as horses, streams, plants, and animals in an environment that was QUIET. The Mongolian pastureland was a quiet environment free of the things that overload the sensory system of a child with autism.
….. Horseback riding is a great activity. Many parents have told me that their child spoke his/her first words on a horse. Activities that combine both rhythm and balancing such as horseback riding, sitting on a ball, or swinging help stabilize a disordered sensory system.
There is a small but growing body of research around hippotherapy — the technical term for horse riding — and its social, emotional and physical benefits in autism. Sam had already had enough of the other type of “hippo-therapy” while in Africa but here in Uganda we were offered opportunity for our own horse boy experience, another chance to push the boundaries of his world a little bit further.
A small group from the hostel hopped on a small boat across the river, while red- tailed and vervet monkeys leaped and scattered around the acacia and umbrella trees on the steep banks of clay. A cape clawless otter slicked off some nearby rocks into the turquoise water as we chugged to the stables on the other side of the Nile.
While we were climbing onto the horses, the Australian owner, TJ, was being very particular about making sure Sam was safe. He suggested one of his instructors walk with him, just in case. I wasn’t sure if this was necessary, sometimes the line between safety and overprotective can be a fuzzy one, but I went with TJ and the safety option. We put on our helmets.
‘I look like an American footballer,’ Sam said.
OK, I can run with that, I thought.
The walking instructor probably wasn’t necessary but that is easy to say in hindsight. The horses took as through the local village and farms, with subsistence plots of corn, yams, banana, coffee, jack fruit and cassava. Children ran out of mud brick houses and yards to greet us on the side of the thin track, some naked, most not, all smiling and waving. Girls carried babies, teenage boys jostled each other and looked at us with half a smile and puffed chests, a woman chopped wood and another old woman, stooped over her stick, held up her hand and said ‘Jambo mzungu.’ Hello white people. Ugandans, as we had been led to believe, were proving to be a friendly lot.
We arced back towards the steep river banks before looping back up to the stables. Sam was happy with his horse.
‘Sam, his name is Jack Daniels.’
‘No, I am renaming him Bullseye.’
I hoped Sam didn’t start riding him in the same manner as Woody out of the Toy Story movies rode his steed!