I watch as Chris Patella, Founder and Director of Animal-Assisted Therapy Services, Inc., welcomes J* to Miles Hill Farm and introduces him to each of her nine horses. J is 5 years old and selectively mute, he speaks a little at home but not outside of the family. This is his third session with Chris and not surprisingly he seems incredibly shy. She invites him to collect dandelions with her and explains how much horses love dandelions, which becomes clear as we watch Diesel gobble them up. J keeps searching for more dandelions and within ten minutes is placing his hand in Chris’s to offer the flowers to Diesel. Though J doesn’t say a word, Chris continues to talk to him, praising him for his kindness in finding treats for the horse. She asks him questions about the horses, allowing him to nod or shake his head in response. She helps him to select a pony – Casper – to groom and ride. Throughout the process, Chris and her volunteers interact with J. They ask him questions to see what he remembers from the previous week; ‘Do we start with the soft brush or the hard brush?’. J points to the soft brush. Whilst one person may interpret this as J refusing to talk, Chris and her team interpret it as J choosing to communicate, which can be worked with. They focus on ability, rather than disability. It is a joy to watch.
As the session continues, J visibly grows in confidence, he nods or shakes his head a bit quicker, his movements grow a little bigger. They saddle the pony and he climbs on. This is only his second time on horseback and he has never ridden before, only sat on a stationary horse. Chris asks him what we say to instruct Casper to move. No answer. She asks him again. Still no answer. She reminds him, ‘Walk on’ for go, ‘Woah’ for stop. He nods. Having reassured him that they will only take one step at a time, Chris asks J if he can ask Casper to walk on. He stays still and silent. Gently, she asks him again. He stays silent. Chris pats Casper and looks at J, then explains to him, ‘You need to talk to Casper or he won’t know what you want him to do. Can you ask him to walk on?’ A guttural sound comes from J, ‘Mmm mm!’
This was a monumental moment to witness. A boy who will not speak to strangers, who doesn’t want to make a sound and only sometimes nods his head, and here he was, commanding a 14-hand pony. He may not have used the words but his intonation was clear, he mirrored Chris’s tone exactly. In only their third session together, he was choosing to use his voice.
What struck me watching this was how rich animal-assisted interventions can be, especially when facilitated by the right person. There is so much more to this type of work than just the physical comfort of being alongside an animal. Working alongside Casper, Chris was able to draw out a metaphor to teach Thomas something that words alone couldn’t. The message behind her words was clear, ‘You need to talk to people or they won’t know what you want’: in talking about the horse, rather than other people, she enabled him to understand it.
This post doesn’t even begin to sum up the work Chris does at AaTs. The very nature of this field – working with animals, working with people, operating as a non-profit organisation – demands that the work is incredibly varied and each organisation has many strings to their bow. My final report will include a more in-depth description of my visits, but if you have any questions in the meantime, please get in touch.
Post by Ione Maria Rojas.
*Name hidden for confidentiality.