But what if that child can’t sleep, melts down in classrooms and grocery stores and is told time and again that he “can’t.”
We’re going to level with you – J’s interest in the horses had begun to wane. He’s six and big for his age. He’s going through a phase where his frustration tolerance is at an all time low and he’s been acting out violently despite the loving attention from his parents and aids. They’ve worked with the behaviorists, the specialists, the teachers – the whole banana. He’s always loved the rhythm and hard pressure of cantering on the longe line on our ever ready pony Rickie but lately, he’s been grabbing the tack with all his might and throwing himself off the pony. We knew we needed a plan to keep him safe and keep him engaged. But what we really wanted to do was to draw out the unique joy and creativity of this beautiful child. We wanted his wonderful parents to hear good news about what he could do, about how clever and creative he is.
But what to do?
We received a text from his mom in the morning that read: “ps. no sleep again. So doomed.”
We had 90 minutes to figure it out and in that time we also had chores, tasks and a ranch to run. What to do? This beautiful child was slipping. He was frustrated, angry and constantly in time-outs for aggressive behavior. How could we flip it around? How could we engineer an experience that didn’t set him up for another frustrating failure?
We thought about going back to back riding. He’s bigger now, but we could keep him safer if he’s up with me. But how do we make that new and exciting? We’d been working on his love and engagement with the pony and that was still working. But if we can’t keep him safe….
What about a trail ride? No, he’s fascinated with hide-and-go-seek and there’s a lot of poison oak on the trail right now and that would be a nightmare for this sensory sensitive guy and his sleep deprived family.
We were stumped. Our gaggle of teens were dreaming of the jumping session we’d promised them after J’s session and as much as we tried to get their ideas – they were thinking about which horses they might ride and if they should go and set up a jumping course.
That’s it! J needed to feel empowered – listened to and in control. He needed to feel the joy of a moving, wonderful horse that would take him through transitions into a place of wonder and joy. He needed to show us that he was creative and smart and fun.
“Girls, go set up some jumps – make them colorful and single fences. Then go and tack up your jumping horses and then put on fun costumes like colorful polo wraps for the horses and tutu’s and super hero capes for yourselves. Be tacked up and warmed up by the time J gets here and tack up Beetle for back-riding while you are at it and put on Beetle the craziest saddle pad you can find.”
You can imagine how easy it was to motivate a half dozen teen girls on this path.
When J arrived, we picked him up at the parking lot with Beetle and told him we had the very best surprise in the arena he could imagine and that Beetle and I would take him there. The car ride had him dis-regulated and he wasn’t quite ready to swallow our plan. He walked a few circles around the manure pile, took off his shirt and was going for his shoes when he heard the sounds of the girls in the arena laughing and giggling. That’s what got his attention. “Let’s go see the girls – you are going to LOVE this!”
He was in – but not completely. We had some selling to do. “J, the girls are all waiting for you. You are going to be their teacher today. The’ve been waiting for you all afternoon. They could hardly eat lunch they’ve been so excited.” He spun around to look at me. He wasn’t quite buying it and he had things he wanted to do.
“You get to pick which girl and then you tell them which jump to take. And then you pick another girl and tell her which jump to jump. You are their teacher today. Pick a girl – they are all ready.”
“Pick me! Pick me!” The girls all cried.
J was hooked.
In minutes he was snapping his fingers and telling the girls “listen up! Rachel, you go to the blue jump.”
“Which one – there’s a dark blue and a light blue?”
“Dark blue AND THEN light blue!” He was in ecstasy.
We spent the next hour marching around the ring on horseback, making up encouraging songs to bring the girls safely over the jumps (“go Kemma, go Kemma, go Kemma – good girl!!!) creating courses and describing them to the girls, giving them encouragement when things went wrong and more. His mom stood at the fence and watched it all with a giant smile on her face. At no point did she have to warn him, admonish him, correct him, direct him. She got to bask in the sound of his laughter and watch him be playful, creative and kind.
That’s just how HorseBoy Method™ rolls. Right? Flipping around the old “top down” dynamic. Fostering movement and curiosity and joy. Here’s the kicker; everyone won – teens, parents, horses. The girls are still talking about it – still high on how much fun they had. Their moms sent notes as well.
It shouldn’t be special – it shouldn’t be news. But we are going to keep on re-defining normal and laughing and playing our way to wholeness.