Flying High Farm, Inc.
Christine Randle, LICSW
611 Leominster Road
Lunenburg, MA 01462
© 2003 Flying High Farm
What is Puzzle Ponies?
Of the children in treatment at Flying High Farm, more than 40% of these children are diagnosed on the Autism Spectrum. This prompted the genesis of Puzzle Ponies, a psychotherapy practice for youth that incorporates ponies to best meet the various needs of this diverse group of children. Professionals in the EFP field believe that horses can teach young children the concept of unconditional love, improve their problem solving skills, social skills, language abilities, and also serve as a metaphor to children for people, places and challenges in their life. Developing and practicing these life skills challenges can be especially difficult for children with autism.
Puzzle Ponies is currently staffed with three Massachusetts-licensed clinicians (LICSW and LMHC) who are also Massachusetts Licensed Riding Instructors and PATH Therapeutic Riding Instructors. Puzzle Ponies currently has three pony co-therapists – Duncan, Twizzle and Bramble - who work alongside the clinicians.
Why the focus on autism?
Data from March 2013 reports that as many as 1 in 88 children in the United States (and 1 in 54 boys) are diagnosed on the autism spectrum – this is 1.1% of the US population - suggesting that 75,000 people in Massachusetts have autism. These children are often characterized with poor social/communication skills, delayed language skills, obsessive or repetitive routines, physical clumsiness, and behavioral challenges. The number of children diagnosed with autism is rising at an alarming rate. There is much speculation as to why these numbers are increasing, but what is more important is the fact that services need to be made available to these children in order to provide a higher quality of life.
How does Puzzle Ponies help children with autism?
Puzzle Ponies works toward optimizing the child’s currently level of functioning thereby enhancing the ability, and desire, to interact with other people. Through grooming, caring for and riding the ponies, children with autism are exposed to a variety of stimuli that they cannot control. This can be especially challenging and overwhelming for children who thrive on routine, but it provides them with an opportunity to be exposed to these situations and practice the skills to safely and effectively deal with life in general. EFP targets behaviors associated with autism in the following ways:
To help improve a child’s interpersonal skills, the therapist will:
• Encourage eye contact when talking with the child
• Ask the child questions related to the session (What is the pony’s name?, What is my name?, Where is the brush?, What do we do next?)
• Redirect the child if s/he perseverates on an unrelated topic (coin collecting, Star Wars)
• Model appropriate commands to the pony (“Whoa,” “Trot, Duncan,” “Good job, Twizzle”)
• Engage the child in conversation while s/he is riding or working with the pony.
To help encourage language skills, the therapist will:
• Ask the child to identify various items in the barn (the names of the ponies, brushes, saddle, bridle, helmet)
• Ask the child what the pony is thinking
• Engage the child in a conversation about school or home while grooming the pony
To help reduce obsessive or repetitive routines and encourage flexibility, the therapist will:
• Inform the child that s/he can’t talk about that topic while riding and will introduce other topics of conversation
• Assist the child in hand-over-hand activities if s/he is stuck in a routine
• Alert the child to the pony’s various movements (stomping of feet, whinnying, snorting, swishing tail, tossing of head) and draw from the child the reasons for the pony’s behavior
To help improve fine and gross motor skills, the therapist will ask the child to:
• Hold the brush and groom the pony’s body, tail or mane
• Help clean out the pony’s feet
• Put the saddle on the pony and buckle the girth
• Mount the pony
• Hold the reins for steering and stopping
To help minimize behavioral challenges, the therapist will:
• Incorporate behavioral plans from home into sessions
• Develop behavioral plans to reduce interfering behaviors
• Help the child identify the motivation behind his/her behavior
The pony itself provides the therapist with a multi-sensory tablet around which to build an intensive treatment plan. The pony’s behaviors, unpredictable at times (stomping feet to get rid of flies, nickering to a friend, turning its head toward child in search of a treat - these are typical pony behaviors and do not pose a risk to the child) offer the challenge of being flexible to a child who prefers rigidity and routine. Once the child realizes the reason behind the behavior – Duncan is whinnying to Bramble because he misses him, Bramble is turning his head toward the child to nip at a fly on his shoulder, Duncan is rubbing his head on the child because his head is itchy, Twizzle is reaching her head out because she wants a treat – the behavior isn’t as worrisome. Talking about the behavior also engages the child in conversation and encourages him to put himself in the pony’s shoes to consider why the pony would act in this way. Seeing another’s point of view is a challenge for people living with autism.