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The Horse That Taught My Child Self-Control — and Joy

“We work on impulse control almost constantly in our house. Watching her ride horseback for the first time, we let Gwen know we are incredibly proud of her and we remind her: ‘You are in control of your body, you are secure, and you are in control of your movements.’”

Equine therapy for ADHD - a young girl riding a horse.

With my face in my hands, I wipe away my tears. Even in the midst of COVID, we are actively pursuing occupational therapy and attending regular psychologist visits with our 5-year-old daughter, who was diagnosed with ADHD at age 3. But it’s clear that we need to do more and, as I open my laptop and a fresh Google search, I am determined to find another connection to help her.

New ADHD therapy ideas abound, but I find that most programs are not taking new patients due to density restrictions on their indoor classrooms. As my research deepens, I finally stumble upon equine psychotherapy and, though weekly programs are accepting new riders, they are all at least a 30- to 45-minute drive from our house.

I inquire with all four programs in the Kansas City area and educate myself further on their offerings. In the end, we decide on a very hands-on program that looks like the best fit for our sensitive, active little girl.

During the first session, she is beyond excited and makes an instant connection with the horses. She has to overcome her anxieties of getting dirty — one of so many different sensory obstacles. Right out of the chute, she stops the horse while riding to tell us that she feels energized up there. A breakthrough!

Or maybe not, I thought, as a few rough sessions followed. She was fighting even getting in the car for horseback riding and I was questioning whether we made the wrong choice. During two back-to-back sessions, she is not able to listen or follow any directions and we are feeling discouraged and ready to quit. She asks to try it one more time. And I remind myself that this is therapy. There are going to be good and bad days.

[Click to Read: Take the Reins from ADHD with Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy]

We resolve to do a better job preparing Gwen in the mornings that she has riding. We remind her every 30 minutes until it is time to go. We let her have her mini tantrum about not wanting to go and remind her to close her eyes and think about the feeling she gets when she is up on the horse.

When we arrive for our next session, she eagerly picks the horse named Bambi. In equine therapy, you learn an abundance of skills while working with your hands. Her first step is always to groom the horse. She has to overcome sensory fears and feel all the brushes, then get down and dirty with the horse. She then follows a 30-minute listening exercise while walking Bambi on a course. Through all of this, she is able to focus and listen simultaneously, a huge accomplishment. After completing the course, she is ready to ride.

Then she does it — she gets up on Bambi bareback and begins riding. Up until this point, she had only ridden the horses walking, focusing on learning riding queues. But this time, up on Bambi, Gwen begins to trot and the look on her face turns to pure joy. It is exhilarating and energizing all at the same time.

Gwen says, “Woah” and stops Bambi to tell us, “I feel so happy. I’m not thinking about anything else because I love Bambi.”

We work on impulse control almost constantly in our house. In this moment, we let Gwen know we are incredibly proud of her and we remind her: “You are in control of your body, you are secure, and you are in control of your movements.”

Tears well up in my eyes once again — this time I’m in awe that my baby girl has achieved a huge goals all on her own and that she’s benefiting from an equally huge (and rare) sense of accomplishment. I feel hopeful that we have found a new therapeutic activity that teaches control and that — more importantly — brings joy.

Equine Therapy: Next Steps

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