(In this most recent post in our series of guest posts by anthropologists studying autism, it’s a pleasure to have Roslyn Malcolm. Roslyn is a doctoral researcher in at the University of Edinburgh, where she also studied Medical Anthropology at Masters level. She has a background in anthropology and psychology at undergraduate level and has also worked in the equine therapy field for a number of years. This is where her interest in autism began. Her PhD project focuses on the use of equine therapy as a treatment for autistic children and adults.)
A horse trainer once said to me, ‘Animals don’t think, they just make associations’. I responded to that by saying, ‘If making associations is not thinking, then I would have to conclude that I do not think.’ (Grandin, 1997: 141).
My entry into the study of autism came with an impromptu visit from the mother of an autistic child in 2010. In the office of a riding therapy centre in Scotland, where I had by then worked for three years, my colleagues and I were thanked profusely. She explained that her son had begun talking for the first time after coming riding. She told us, “he says ‘I love you’ now”. I was grabbed by the story of this mother and child. It was not the first time we had encountered these results. As the number of children with autism accessing the centre rose, so did these reports. As an anthropologist, I wanted to learn more. How could a horse make an autistic child or adult, popularly defined by empathic and intersubjective deficits, talk?
During exploratory research I talked with parents, therapy practitioners, and teachers. A teacher told me about Joe. “When he was on the horse he would actually talk! In sentences! He would sit up, hold the reins. Amazing, just totally amazing! … He would only do that at horse riding… But there are lots of kids like that, that do things at horse riding that they don’t do at school…it just opens up their world”.
The children began to use social behaviours with the horse – patting, stroking, laughing. These were seen as expressions of empathy. Over the period of sessions (each child attended for at least three months) these expressions would gradually extend to other people in the riding arena, the other children, helpers, teachers and practitioners as the child began to use eye contact, touch, smiling, and ultimately, some began to use words. As one of the instructors Laura said, “over time they start to talk to the leaders or the helpers… they learn how to communicate.” In the equine therapy context, then, horses appear to facilitate a communicative network that allows autistic riders to engage in intersubjective and communicative behaviours, many for the first time.
Laura told me of a child who had surprised his family by talking at the Centre. “The carers that had been bringing him didn’t know that he didn’t talk at home. And it wasn’t until the teachers got together with the parents and told them, ‘he tells his horse to walk on and he says thank you at the end of the lesson’ that they knew their child could talk. His parents came into the Centre and his mother was in tears. It was at the end of class and the instructor said ‘everyone say thank you to your helpers’. The boy turned, looked his helper in the eye and said thank you. His mum burst into tears because she had never heard him talking to somebody before”. The parents then encouraged him to speak at home as much as possible.
Over the weeks and months of sessions, incremental benefits are built upon, extending out from initial patting of horses, to communicating with the people in sessions, and further again, to home life, helping autistic riders to “open up”. The children entered into what Olga Solomon calls an ‘ontological choreography’, similar to – yet different from – the one described in her study of therapy dogs and autism (2010 cf Cussins, 1996). I asked about how the horses in particular helped the children and adults. After being told “well, you can’t ride a dog!” one practitioner continued, “I don’t know that you could explain it… the horses, they just know”. This latter phrase continues to emerge as I talk with horse people, and leads me to ask a second question: How can a horse know?
Exploring my own experience of riding gave some insight as to how to begin answering these two entangled questions. For me, when riding all else just slips away, every part of my embodied attention acutely focused on reaching this communicative clarity with the horse underneath me. Relaxed, yet intent on the next movement I ask of the animal, as soon as I think it, the horse knows, picking up on the slightest of shifts in my weight in the saddle, even a tensing of my muscles as I prepare to ask for a change in pace.
These infinitesimal gestures in body language need be clear so as not to confuse the horse. So too do my thoughts: without this clarity the whole thing disintegrates from a pure, fluid flow of thought, body and movement to an uncomfortable, frustrating dis-coordination of two heads, two hands, six legs and one seat. This equine ‘knowing’ referred to is highly embodied. And it is one shared by rider and horse, enacted in practice, in the bodily engagements of riding.
This embodied knowing and empathy flowing between rider and horse may give an insight into how Grandin understands her own mode of empathising. Grandin notes in the opening quote above that her thinking is not abstract but grounded in “just making associations” between concrete experiences. Grandin similarly notes that her mode of empathising is highly concrete, sensorial and embodied: “[I] empathise through senses rather than in a more emotional abstract manner” (2011: 170). So to the seasoned rider, a horse can know, if knowing includes a bodily form of knowledge. Indeed importantly, as Grandin herself notes, if animals cannot know, and indeed think in concrete bodily ways, then neither can she.
Unless you spend a significant amount of time riding, the beauty of these embodied moments of flow are not revealed. Not wanting to import my positive experience of riding to autistic riders in general I researched autistic blogs noting horse riding or equine therapy for reports from writers. This also reflects a deep conviction that the voice of autistic people must always remain a focus in our study of autism.
Grandin notes that horse riding was “joyous” for her (Grandin, 2005: 6). ‘Aspie’, Liane Holiday Willey emphasises that when riding she enters into a “joint comfort zone” with her horse: “the hours I spent teaching my body to mould to my horse, were priceless and precious pieces of my move toward what I call my bilingual world – half Aspie, half neurotypical… On a horse, I am free. My body forgets there is still a tightness that sits in my muscles… On a horse I can forget my baggage and turn my trust over to the animal beneath me and truly, together, we work out what each of us needs to find that joint comfort zone of relaxed beast and relaxed human” (Willey, 2014).
Indeed, that this is a joint process, where both human and horse are active in the process is echoed by Grandin: “a good rider and his horse are a team. It’s not a one-way relationship, either: it’s not just the human relating to the horse and telling him what to do. Horses are super sensitive to their riders’ needs without being asked … That’s why learning to ride a horse is completely different from learning to ride a bicycle” (2005: 6, italics added). The horse then, does not simply operate like a passive object such as a bicycle. It responds, working with the needs of the child or adult to achieve an attunement.
To explore the phenomenon further and in more depth, I plan on undertaking 12 months of observant participation across a range of sites across the UK. As an experienced equestrian, and having worked within these spaces, an awareness of the human-horse attunement will provide a level of access for me into the experience of my informants (i.e., autistic riders, therapy practitioners, volunteers, and parents and carers). The research will explore reports of the efficacy of equine therapy and the facilitated communication suggested by the exploratory research already carried out.
If you are autistic, or have an autistic child and have had experience of using equine therapy to help, please do get in touch @ rmalcolm- at-exseed.ed.ac.uk
*This doctoral project is gratefully funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).
Cussins, C. (1996). Ontological Choreography: Agency through Objectification in Infertility Clinics. Social Studies of Science, 26(3), 575-610.
Grandin, T. (1997). Thinking the Way Animals Do: Unique insights from a person with a singular understanding. Western Horseman, 1997 (Nov), 140-145.
Grandin, T. & Scariano, M.M. ( 2005). Emergence, Labelled Autistic: A True Story. New York & Boston: Warner Books.
Grandin, T. (2005). Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behaviour. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.
Grandin, T. (2011). The Way I See It: A Personal Look at Autism & Asperger’s. Arlington: Future Horizons.
Solomon, O. (2010a). What a Dog Can Do: Children with Autism and Therapy Dogs in Social Interaction. Ethos, 38(1), 143 – 166.
Willey, L.H. (2014). Horse Therapy. [online]. Sourced on 13.10.14 from http://www.aspie.com/blog/category/horsetherapy.