“You can’t really work with a horse if you’re scattered, a horse doesn’t feel comfortable being led by someone in that state.” ~ Kail O’Donnell
You’ve heard of horse whisperers. But did you know that horses are ADHD whisperers?
Kail O’Donnell was 12 years old when he began working with Toby, a horse who’d been physically abused.
Toby was rescued and rehabilitated by the late Gary Convery, horse whisperer and owner of Pleasure Valley Ranch, Ontario, Canada. Kail was rescued and rehabilitated from some of his ADHD symptoms and low self-image by Toby and Gary.
It was Kail’s mother, filmmaker Karen O’Donnell, who took her son Kail to Pleasure Valley Ranch in an effort to address Kail’s ADHD symptoms. O’Donnell filmed Kail’s experiences for her documentary, Odd Kid Out, and their return visit in her follow-up film, A Mind Like Mine.
When I spoke with Kail (now 21 years old) in February 2011, he remembered his first experience with Toby vividly.
Working with Toby, said Kail, gave him a reason to want to focus. Kail says,
“You’re thinking, ‘This isn’t going to work, this is stupid.’ And then it works. You’re like, ‘Oooh…that’s cool. Okay.’ And then you’re in it. You’re not thinking about anything else. That’s when I noticed I was totally focused on what I was doing. You couldn’t drop [your focus] or else he’d stop following you, he wouldn’t be with you anymore.”
Kail, who was diagnosed with ADHD as a child, was having a lot of trouble at school when he first started working with Toby. Not only was he having trouble making friends, Kail says he was socially ostracized. Working with Toby gave Kail a friendship he didn’t have at school, and made him feel connected.
Gary, Toby’s owner, also helped Kail to feel a confidence that he’d never felt before. Kail says,
“Gary liked people with ADD. He thought they had something kind of special about them, and I never really thought about it that way.”
Melanie Gray has experienced first-hand what horses can do for ADHD kids. Gray, a certified Equine-Assisted Psychotherapist and a life-time member of Equine Assisted Growth and Learning, runs Partners In Process, a facility in Owen Sound, Ontario, Canada, which focuses on experiential learning and therapeutic programs for at-risk youth and their families.
Gray uses a variety of exercises to develop positive emotional, mental, behavioral, physical and social skills in her clients (mainly children, but some adults as well). She relates a recent incident with a group of boys, all around age 12, most of whom were struggling with ADHD.
The exercise had the boys build their own boundaries and invite a horse to join them within the boundary. Gray says:
“One young fellow, who was usually all over the map…was watching what the other kids were doing. …Then all of a sudden he stopped, and went and got a chair.
He brought the chair into the boundary [he’d built] because the horse was not paying attention. He sat in the chair and totally became quiet. And Gun [a horse who also has attention difficulties] walked over into the boundary. I wish I would have videoed it. And here’s a kid that could not sit still.
I turned around and went, ‘What are you doing?’ He was calm, sitting in the chair inside his boundary, arms crossed, waiting.
He said, ‘I’m waiting.’ That was the WOW moment.”
At the time of this incident, there were 5 or 6 kids, and that many horses, all roaming around the arena.
O’Donnell and Gray note that areas of focus and attention, trust, social interaction, communication, confidence, and being in the “now” are all areas that can be improved through equine therapy.
A good place to start for research on Equine Assisted Psychotherapy is the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association’s (EAGALA) research page.