I first came to horses some years ago as an adult. As a child they had been my overriding obsession but the opportunity to have much contact with them, let alone have one of my own was never a remote possibility. Looking back I wonder how much difference that contact would have made as I struggled to get by with undiagnosed autism and went on to experience the mental health difficulties – anorexia, depression and self-harm – that so many of us who slipped through the diagnostic net have been through.
For those of us who were born too early to be diagnosed with Aspergers or were missed out on account of being female, high functioning and able to put on an acceptable social front at least some of the time, it has often been an uphill struggle to get by. I can’t help thinking that horses might have saved me from so much of this. But, better late than never, and by a particularly difficult route, I came to horses in the end. They have had an amazing effect on my autistic world.
Something strange happens when I go to be with my four horses at the end of the day. With them I am no longer an outsider battling through the day, tolerating unwanted noise, sights, company. I am no longer alone either – I have come to join in with this herd who accept me willingly, just as I am. This is what makes it so different: I want to be here, want to be with these magnificent gentle creatures where I feel accepted and at peace.
When I stand in the field listening to them whickering softly or nuzzling me, or when I just sit and watch them graze and groom each other I enter another zone. I become, however temporarily, an honorary member of the herd. With them I have found a sense of home and belonging which, through autism, I have never found in the human sphere.
There are many reasons why this is so. Despite being high functioning, able – albeit with great difficulty – to work most of the time and live independently, the struggles of autism are always there. When I am not working I spend the vast majority of my time alone, trying to recover from the overload that is human contact, the noise and the pointless talk, the interruptions to my highly focused thought processes.
And yet, all this leads to isolation and has so often left me feeling cut off, a freak, empty and baffled by the social world that others seem to understand so well and enter so naturally but which for me is always a place of fear and exclusion. I have often been criticised by those who know nothing of my autism for being cold, aloof, and unfriendly; I have been urged to smile and talk more – to become, in other words, more neurotypical, something I neither want to be nor am I capable of becoming. I’ve tried to develop a thick skin but my “thick skin” is punctured every time.
When I am with horses none of this matters. I settle into the easy natural rhythm of their world, a place where it doesn’t matter if you don’t talk, miss the social cues, don’t have to make yet another excuse for just getting it wrong. It doesn’t matter either if I am clumsy, talk to myself, stim – animals don’t care. Being with horses I feel bathed in silence, held in a gentle acceptance, valued as a herd member. After a day at work being exposed to the endless noise that goes under the name of talk, it is the silence I value most. This is because horses do not talk – they communicate yes, but silently with the flick of an ear, the swish of a tail or a raising of the neck. And they do not lie or deceive or put on a social front because they are born incapable of doing this – what you see with any animal is what you get; it requires no highly developed arsenal of interpretation or a demand that you make this or that response – but which one?
The benefits don’t stop with sitting in the field. When I ride my horse, Misty, I enter into a whole new world. Riding requires cooperation and trust and these are not givens in the autistic world. In riding you enter into a partnership between you and the horse – you are moving together, negotiating the path ahead of you together, and interpreting each other as best you can across the species divide. To be with another sensate being, sharing space, negotiating the environment around you, learning to see what a horse sees and understand what it feels you are essentially learning the basics of Theory of Mind. You learn to imagine yourself in another’s place – you are no longer alone, stuck in your autistic universe.
Horses have brought me sanctuary, companionship and connection but I little suspected when I bought my first horse Bailey some years ago that there might be sound scientific reasons behind this. Science, it seems, has finally caught on to what those of us who love animals instinctively knew all along – namely that human/animal interactions are good for us. Scientists tell us they lead to increased levels of oxytocin, the so-called “love” hormone which promotes social interaction and increases bonding and empathy. Autistic individuals are believed to have a deficit of oxytocin (Gregory et al 2009) and trials have suggested that by being around animals autistic people show improved social interaction, decreased anxiety and increased communication. This does not surprise me in the least. Nor does the fact that the first formal documentation of the use of animals in the therapeutic setting by psychiatrist Boris Levinson in 1962 found that the presence of a dog was particularly beneficial to children with autism. Levinson’s pioneering work with animals and autistic children is widely regarded as the beginning of the animal therapy movement in America.
When I am alone with my horses however, scientific endorsement is neither here nor there. I know something is happening – something which makes me feel safe and connected and good inside. And it works on other levels too. Horses force me (though force is perhaps the wrong word as I go willingly enough) to step outside of my front door into the daylight and fresh air that I would otherwise miss. Riding exercises me physically, causes me to reconnect up with the body that I so often ignore being stuck in my own obsessive mental space. With horses I am responsible for their welfare – I have to deal with the day to day reality of caring for them and I care about them very deeply.
Being autistic has precluded me from relationships and having children but I am unwittingly drawn into this by caring for the creatures I am responsible for. Horses give a structure and routine in a world hallmarked by chronic executive dysfunction and its consequent chaos. I have to feed the horses every day, check them, have to understand structure and routine and responsibility which I can’t help feeling spills over into other areas of my life too.
Something else has happened along this equine journey – and perhaps this is strangest of all. I share my horses with others – with people who are cut off, isolated, incapacitated. I run a miniature pony outreach service and take them into care homes and hospitals where they will happily trot along corridors and go up in lifts to visit the chronically sick in their bedrooms. They bring out smiles, communication, laughter and pleasure in the most unpromising of circumstances. Through horses I’ve been able to reach out to others. Horses act as a bridge between me and the outside world and this is one bridge between autism and “out there” which I am always willing to cross.