An elderly horse is helping a teenage girl in far-west New South Wales overcome her autism.
Rachel Kellie, 15, has been receiving equine therapy at the Murray River border town of Buronga, near Mildura, for more than a year.
“Whenever I’m around Psalm, I’m a lot calmer and a lot more courageous than I would normally be,” Rachel said.
“When I’m not around horses, there’s just a lot of things I never say.”
But after a session with Psalm, Rachel’s mother notices the change in her daughter.
“[Mum] thinks I’m a completely different person and she says it’s like seeing the real me for the first time,” Rachel said.
Riverside Bend vet Deborah Abbenhuys said the program encouraged people with autism to learn to harness their energy to direct the horses.
“A lot of people who come to us are quite shy and not particularly vocal in their communication,” Dr Abbenhuys said.
“And so they are automatically using their physical skills and their body energy, if you like, and the horses do pick up on that because that’s how they communicate with each other.”
Dr Abbenhuys said Rachel’s bond with Psalm had brought the teenager out of her shell.
“I’ve been astounded by the level of detail that Rachel has been able to verbalise, things that she probably knew last year but didn’t have the confidence to say.”
Training towards comfort
Even with special training required, not all horses will make good therapy horses.
At 27, Psalm is considered quite elderly.
Dr Abbenhuys said training a therapy horse began like training any other horse.
But she said it was the horses that displayed calmer traits that were then trained away from the bridle and spur approach.
She said therapy horses were exposed to an array of sounds, situations and people, all in an effort to acclimatise them to a host of scenarios.
She said Psalm was trained so well and was so trusting of Rachel, he allows her to walk him backwards into the vet’s reception.
“You can either train an animal away from pressure, or you can train it towards comfort,” Dr Abbenhuys said.
“And when you realise that the true communication comes from offering comfort but also giving an animal release when the desired effect is achieved then … things just move along very smoothly.”
Rachel says Psalm has helped her come out of her shell. (ABC Mildura-Swan Hill: Simon Galletta)
Why do horses help?
Dr Abbenhuys said horses were effective in therapy because they were non-threatening.
“They’re not asking anything from you and, essentially, you’re not asking anything of them either,” she said.
“So you can just be in each other’s company and just enjoy that energetic feeling that travels between the two of you.”
Dr Abbenhuys said, because horses were suspicious of low energy, Rachel had to learn and display leadership traits.
“So Rachel is learning to use her body energy in a more outgoing way,” she said.
What is autism?
Rachel is one of more than 160,000 Australians living with autism spectrum disorder, a persistent developmental disorder that affects how someone relates to the world and the people in it.
Symptoms can vary, ranging from difficulties in social interaction, restricted or repetitive patterns of behaviour, and impaired communication skills.
But Autism Spectrum Australia’s Liza Cassidy said everyone’s experience of autism was different.
“There’s a saying that if you’ve met one person on the spectrum, you’ve met one person on the spectrum,” Ms Cassidy said.
However she said with one of the symptoms of autism being focused on a particular thing, that thing could provide an opportunity for learning.
“If you can work with someone on the spectrum around their particular interest, you normally get some great results,” Ms Cassidy said.
“You’ll find that they’re more engaged with you, they’re more likely to be able to focus and concentrate.
“They can pick up new skills, you can educate them around maths or other things.
“And you can have deeper conversations and really get to the heart of things.”