Approaching a herd of wild horses in a field may not be a typical therapy activity, but it’s a regular occurrence at the Eye of a Horse program in St. Cloud, Florida, where wild Florida Cracker Horses play a key role in helping adults with autism practice their social skills and gain confidence.
The CDC estimates that 1 in 68 children have the developmental disability—formally known as autism spectrum disorder—which is often characterized by challenges with social skills, communication, and repetitive behaviors, as well as giftedness in other areas. Although there are many resources available to children with autism, most end once the child turns 18. That’s where Eye of a Horse comes in.
Dr. Sandra Wise, a licensed psychologist, and Dean Van Camp, an experienced horse trainer, created the animal-assisted nature exposure therapy program in 2011 at the Crescent J Ranch—a working cattle ranch within the 4,700-acre Forever Florida nature preserve. Eye of a Horse serves a broad range of clients, but their learning and psychotherapy opportunities for adults with autism are especially unique.
Unlike most equine-assisted therapy programs, the majority of the horses utilized by Eye of a Horse are not well-trained, bomb-proof animals. In fact, they’re not trained at all. Rather, they are semi-wild Florida Cracker Horses that roam the 1,350-acre ranch.
The Florida Cracker Horse is a rare breed whose bloodlines can be traced back to Spanish horses brought to Florida in the early 1500s by Juan Ponce de León. The ranch’s 100-head herd is the largest in the world, and they are rarely handled by people. It is precisely their wild nature that makes them perfect for Eye of a Horse’s unique equine-assisted psychotherapy program.
Because the horses have limited human contact, they react to any and every action made by the students. For students with autism—who typically struggle to understand and use non-verbal communication—the reactions of the horses provide clear visual lessons.
“What we are aiming at is for our students to learn something about themselves by the reaction that the horse gives to their behavior,” says Wise.
As the students interact with the horses, Dr. Wise asks them to explain why they think the horses react the way they do. Answering these questions helps the students practice understanding the perspectives of others, a valuable social skill.
Though students learn through Dr. Wise’s guidance, they also benefit greatly from the simple yet powerful experience of just being in the presence of wild horses.
"It is not uncommon for individuals on the autism spectrum to have been subjected to a long history of bullying and social rejection,” says Wise. “Consequently, when our untrained animals choose to freely approach and interact with these students the effect can be profoundly empowering, and the experience can enable them to begin to build some confidence in their relationship skills.”
For many students, the attention from the horses makes them realize that they are seen—something that can be a rare feeling. A student who shared that she had felt invisible all her life finally felt noticed after spending time with the wild horses.
“My physical presence has a voice,” she said.
Eye of the Horse also has 12 trained horses that are utilized for activities like nature walks, where each student leads a horse through trails in the preserve. Maintaining control over their horses while traversing the trail provides an opportunity for the students to practice crucial skills such as multi-tasking, situational awareness, and boundary setting.
“What [working with horses] enables them to do is really be successful socially—some of them for the first time. And then they are able to boost their self-esteem and their confidence levels, and they’re able to go out into the community and practice the skills that they learned working with the horses and really develop some successful relationships,” says Jodi Pierce, an instructor at the College Internship Program for young adults with learning differences.
Eye of a Horse may not conform to the traditional model of equine therapy, but their unique combination of psychotherapy, nature-exposure, and a herd of wild Florida Cracker Horses is certainly changing lives.