Eighteen-year-old Jake Wiles is astride a gentle horse named Woody, riding slowly around a ring in Vista, as Melody Schweizer calls out instructions in a soothing voice. “Left hand turn,” she says. “Now right hand turn.”
With that last command, Wiles gently tugs on the reins, a gesture that seems unremarkable to the casual observer, but in fact, is momentous. “That’s it!” Schweizer exclaims. “Good job!” It is a first for Wiles, who is autistic and non-verbal, with a history of severe behavioral challenges and aggression.
“To me that shows he is taking control of his environment in that moment,” says his mother, Laura. “That’s huge.” Laura says her son has become more confident and trusting in the year or so that he’s been involved in the Therapeutic Equestrian Program offered by TERI, a nonprofit serving those with autism and other developmental disabilities. “I think Jake’s perception of the world from a horse is a lot different,” she says. “I think he feels more in control of his world because he’s up there higher.”
Laura says that confidence has carried over into school, at TERI’s Learning Academy, and interaction with his peers and staff. “It’s night and day,” says Brandon Wright, Jake’s special education teacher at TERI. “Before, he wouldn’t even get out of the car. Now, he’s riding a horse. Doing these kinds of things enriches the quality of his life. It’s made him a lot happier.”
There has long been a close connection between humans and horses. Now many believe horses can heal. In The New York Times bestseller and Sundance documentary film, The Horse Boy, author and filmmaker Rupert Isaacson chronicled the profound changes in his own autistic son, Rowan, who spoke for the first time while on horseback.
Isaacson was in Rancho Santa Fe recently for a TERI fundraiser to benefit the Harriet E. Pfleger Therapeutic Equestrian Center, the first phase of TERI’s planned $50 million San Marcos campus. He spoke about his family’s “impossible adventure” as they traveled “halfway around the world in search of a miracle.” Isaacson said they found that miracle in Outer Mongolia, where they worked intensively with horses and spiritual teachers known as shamans. Rowan’s temper tantrums and incontinence all but disappeared. He learned to connect for the first time, his father says, with the world around him.
TERI’s Therapeutic Equestrian Program now serves 100 students a week at its Vista facility. “It’s unparalleled, the level of interaction and empathy,” says program director Jenell Tiffany. “It’s absolutely incredible what we see down there.” That interaction between humans and horses has led to such benefits as improved strength and balance, focus, self-confidence, and courage. Just why that happens is more difficult to explain. “Apart from the obvious physical benefits, I can only say, ‘ask the horse or ask the rider,’” Tiffany suggests, “because it seems to be their great big, little secret.” (www.teriinc.org, www.horseboymovie.com) Andrea Naversen