For as long as the diagnosis of ADHD has been recognized, there have been experiential methods to treat it. From wilderness excursions to ropes courses, therapists have looked for ways to help those children burdened with high anxiety, short attention span, inability to focus and complete tasks, and heightened excitability, learn to understand and manage their condition.
However, one of the difficulties that has been encountered repeatedly in working with ADHD children is a way to teach them the necessary social skills to develop effective relationships. As often those around ADSHD children will complain about their apparent lack of interest, difficulty in carrying on a meaningful conversation, and maintaining accountability, relationships are often strained. And while they may be able to learn to use goal and completion charts to organize and complete their own tasks, children with ADHD may continue to struggle with face to face interactions.
While verbal reminders have fallen short, therapists have turned to non-verbal methods to help these children identify how they present and the impact that it has on those around them. This is where equine therapy has, of recent, been utilized quite intently.
So how is it that being around a horse can help a child who has trouble focusing in the first place, be effective? To answer this question, we must first understand that ADHD is expressed as a hypervigilance to the environment. While the attention of those not affected by ADHD, can be held quite sufficiently by one component of their environment, ADHD children are constantly switching their focus from one thing to another, and digesting little feedback from the world around them in the process. This hypervigilance is very similar to the physiology of a nervous horse.
However, the difference is that for a horse experiencing this kind of heightened arousal, the pertinent response would be to run. After all, fear initiates flight. And in fleeing, the physiological components of arousal would be actualized and the system reset — essentially, the horse would calm back down.
So when an ADHD child enters the world of a horse — complete with a heightened physiological system — the horse is faced with a conundrum. As horses communicate primarily on a physiological level, the herd member — the ADHD child — is unable to communicate effectively, as what is happening for him on a physiological level is not being expressed. While the child has an exaggerated vigilant response to his environment, he is not fleeing. Essentially, the child is not attending to his own arousal enough to respond effectively to it. In turn, the child is not receptive to the physiological response of the horse. Therefore, if the horse were to express fear, and respond by running, the child would be left behind, and the horse would be alone. Clearly, this is not the purpose of maintaining a herd.
In order to resolve this then, the horse attempts to make the child a better herd member by provoking his physiological response. If, for example, the child has the physiological response of fear (increased epinephrine, nor-epinephrine, and adrenaline), the horse may do something to attempt to make this child express his fear. This may look bullying on the part of the horse, or even pushy, dominant behavior, but it is the only way for the horse to force the repressed fear the child has to the surface.
When the child’s physiology is brought to the surface, and expressed, he is not only more attentive to it, but he is also less blocked by it, thereby allowing for a more reciprocal relationship with the horse. This reciprocal relationship lays the foundation for the development of an effective herd — one whose nonverbal communication is deft and unfettered. In this sense, by positively affecting the nonverbal communication of the ADHD child, the horse not only makes the world safer for himself, but for the child as well.
Photo by Linda Dougherty, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.