My Experience and Education Assisting With Equine Therapy

Jordan Gotwalt - smiling Caucasian woman with long light brown hair sitting on the back of an old tow truckBy Jordan Mackenzie Gotwalt
Sonoran UCEDD Trainee 2019-2020

Undergraduate Certificate in DD

Throughout this past semester, I had the amazing opportunity to volunteer at Angels in Autism LLC, an early intervention center serving community members with developmental disabilities in Tucson. This organization is dedicated to providing behavioral and cognitive therapies to individuals with disabilities, primarily those with autism, in order to encourage the development of positive social skills and promote self-determination. Angels in Autism has partnered with Equine Therapy Arizona, Inc. to bring the perfect individualized blend of Equine Therapy, Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), and Discrete Trail Teaching/Training (DTT) for children aged 1 year old to young adults. They provide lessons in the learning center, riding lessons, and various camps for children of all ages to come and explore the equine world.

three kids riding horses with support during therapy session

During my experience, I had the opportunity to help in the Learning Center and to be a sidewalker during the Equine Therapy lessons. In the Learning Center, I worked with staff and students to advance their school skills and other behavioral tactics such as learning to express emotions. As a sidewalker, I worked with staff during equine therapy lessons to help guide students during activities and ensure their safety throughout the lesson. While the Learning Center was a great experience, the equine lessons were the highlight of my day, every day. Angels in Autism has many different horses, each with a different personality. While each individual has their own favorite horse, everyone has the chance to work with a variety of horses, no matter what skill level they are. From simple brushing to groundwork to riding, all individuals have a chance to connect with their horse. This provides them the opportunity to practice building positive, caring relationships. It was amazing to see the students’ light up when they were with their horses and be witness to their progress throughout their sessions.

There were two people that truly exposed me to the impact that both horses and other individuals can have on each other. I was working with a young boy and girl who have a lesson together. Throughout their sessions, they were both working on decision making skills, the importance of communicating clearly, and giving specific directions. Their first task was to work on direction-giving and forming solutions. They were each given a route to take in the corral, had to explain to each other what their route was, and come up with a solution on how they could each take their route without running into each other.

young boy petting a horse's faceTheir next session revealed the progress that they made on communicating clearly. They were both blindfolded, handed an object, and had to describe it to the other person. Afterwards, they had to decide if they held the same object in their hand. They also needed to perform this while next to a horse, showing the trust that they have in their horse and in the staff members. A big part of this exercise was teaching them how to control their anxiety as well, since they were blindfolded.

For the rest of the session, they performed groundwork, walking the horses around a path at the ranch. This part of the session was to teach them to work on their breathing, controlling their anxiety, and increase their confidence levels. I watched as these two students became more self-determined and powerful after planning how they would deal with obstacles and succeed once they got through them. Then I noticed a change in myself, about how going through these sessions with the children also encouraged me to breathe deeper, increase my confidence, and decrease any anxiety that I have. Anyone incorporated into the lesson, including the students, staff, and volunteers, learn something new about themselves and how they can make themselves into a more confident individual.

This mix of equine therapy and ABA has shown me a new pathway into early intervention and the improvement that all children can make, even in just one session. The community that Angels in Autism provides is one that is open, welcoming, and is always there when I need it. They work together with families to increase self-determination, create bonds, and develop connections. I have learned so much while being a part of this community, and I hope to continue to grow through my involvement with Angels in Autism, LLC.

Learn more about Angels in Autism, LLC by clicking here:

The Sonoran UCEDD does not endorse any particular service providers. 

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