Sitting atop his horse at Tanque Verde Ranch east of Tucson, Ariz., Bennett looked relaxed, cool, collected even. And when Jake started walking around the corral after Bennett made a kissing sound (and thanks to some encouragement from Bennett’s instructor and Buckaroo camp counsellor, Emma Anderson), he grinned the biggest smile I’d seen in awhile.
I had heard that horseback riding is great for children with autism. Called “equine therapy,” the benefits of sitting astride a horse range from vestibular sensory stimulation and bonding between horse and child, to gross and fine motor skill strengthening thanks to balancing to stay on the mount and steering with the reins. So when Bennett had a chance to go horseback riding at a dude ranch I suggested he try it. No argument there — he couldn’t get his helmet on fast enough.
“My horse is Jake,” he told me before Emma helped him into the child-sized saddle and adjusted his stirrups. “I am going to ride him!”
I half expected Bennett to chicken out and want down, or to bounce around precariously when Jake began a slow walk around the corral, but he just smiled and went with it. The coolest part was that Bennett was actually holding the reins. It would be a stretch to say he was steering Jake (the well-trained horse just followed Emma around), but the longer he rode the more confident he became.
“He’s a natural,” Emma said as we walked around the ring with Bennett and Jake. “Just look at his seat.” A “good seat” on a horse is maintaining balance without grabbing an aid like the mane, and staying grounded in the saddle during the ride. Emma said some kids clutch the saddle horn or get jostled around. Not Bennett. He even rested his hand on his hip like a weathered cowpoke.
When Emma asked Bennett if he’d like Jake to go faster his immediate response was, “Yes!” It took a lot more encouragement to get Jake trotting (Emma had to pull on his lead while jogging), but the result was priceless: Bennett absorbed the movement easily all while giggling.
After trotting several times Bennett finally said, “I am all done riding.” I asked him if he’d like to ride Jake again later in the day and again his answer was clear: “How about yes!” I can’t say if Bennett bonded with his horse or even whether horseback riding helped his motor skills in any way. I do know it gave Bennett great joy to ride a horse and it’s one of the few things he’s tried that has been effortless, so that’s good enough for me.