It’s my understanding that most people who train horses for therapy work use minis. It makes perfect sense — it has to be so much more convenient to haul a mini around. But I have long been interested in having my horse Clifford work with people with special needs.
In this regard, I’m lucky to have a friend like Beth Duman. A biologist and behaviorist who specializes in the study of wolves (Could it be any more ironic that she lives in Howell, Michigan?), she has now been instrumental in helping two of my dreams to come true.
1) To meet a live wolf up close and personal. (Which happened several years ago when she was lecturing at Wolf Park in Battleground, IN)
and 2) To have my horse, Clifford, do therapy for people with disabilities, specifically people with autism.
Beth has been volunteering with her dog Lacey for about 7 years at Pathway School in Howell. All I had to do was mention to her in passing that I was trying to get Clifford into a facility for the disabled, and she said, “I might be able to help you with that.”
|“Just one moment! I have to pose for my paparazzi!”|
A week later, Clifford was walking through the door of the school, where we were greeted by an excited bevy of staff with cameras. Clifford, as is his wont, stopped and posed right inside the door as soon as he saw all the cell phones aimed at him. A bigger equine ham, there never was.
Then we marched down the hallway into the classroom, where we greeted group after group of kids from a variety of different classes. Clifford was in his element. We began each brief session by allowing him to walk up to each student, just like he does in the library. It was the same type of greeting. If the child shied away, he simply moved along to the next one. These kids, however, were different and he seemed to immediately pick up on this. Many of them were in wheelchairs. Every time I have ever seen him around a wheelchair, he goes right for the person’s legs.
He did that again today — nuzzling and touching them gently. He blew softly in one little boy’s hair. He touched another’s fingers. Some of the kids were non-responsive, and with those, he paused a little longer until he got some kind of reaction. If they seemed fearful, he moved away. His manner was completely gentle and kind.
One of the teachers asked me, “Did you teach him to do this?”
I shook my head. “This is all him.”
All I did was stand back and let the lead rope play out. As Clifford approached each child, the staff members would say the child’s name, enthusiastically, in unison, excited and laughing.
Clifford painted a couple of pictures and did some tricks for the kids, but the heart of the visit really seemed to be the close contact. One girl ran through the door and grabbed him in a big hug. He took it all in stride. He crunched candy canes and made cordial nose touches with Lacey.
It became obvious to me that the teachers were very emotionally invested in these kids. They laughed. They cried. They took pictures. Beth told me that there were things happening, remarkable things, with some of the children, but of course I had no way of knowing what they were. I was just letting Clifford work his magic. I hope to find out more later, about our impact on the school.
After about an hour and a half, Clifford had made contact with some fifty or sixty kids. We were ready to wrap it up. We loaded him back into the trailer and headed home, driving through the slush and sleet. We stopped at his favorite store, Tractor Supply, and went in to get him a bag of grain. He came into the store with us. I walked him back to the service desk, to meet with the manager about a potential book signing there. While we discussed it, Clifford revealed TSC as his virtual “home” by falling asleep standing next to me!
It was a good day. Merry Christmas Clifford. Thanks for all you do.