Henry and volunteer sized

Horses teach empathy

Every week when 14-year-old Henry comes to the farm, he looks forward to grooming his horse, Bert, touching his soft chestnut-colored coat and checking in on his mood.

One day, Henry noticed Bert wasn’t himself. “I think he misses his friend,” Henry, who has autism, said explaining that Bert had just lost his pasture mate, C.J.

“Horses bring out a very tender part of Henry,” says Natalie, Henry’s mom. “Developing a relationship with a horse and caring for it makes him aware that he is a person in a universe, not just in a world to himself.”

“Noticing Bert’s sadness showed how much Henry had grown emotionally,” said Winni, one of his instructors. “Bonding with a living, breathing, intuitive animal has taught him about emotions.”

Winni often starts her classes asking her students how they and their horse are feeling. Are they relaxed? Are they tense? Are they feeling sluggish? If they are tense or nervous, she will ask her riders to take deep breaths, lengthen their legs and move with the horse instead
of bracing against the motion. Often there will be an immediate response as both horse and rider begin to relax so they can enjoy their ride.

When they are feeling disinterested or moving slowly, she will ask them to give verbal cues such as, “Walk on’” to encourage the horse to move forward. If that doesn’t work, she will ask them to say “Walk on” again and then add a physical cue like a gentle bump with their leg on the horse’s side to move on. Riding utilizes both sides of the brain which helps participants engage their whole body and their mind with the experience.

“Feeling the horse you have underneath you at that moment and responding to it builds a good partnership,” says Winni, explaining how riders must work together with their horses to successfully navigate a pattern in the arena or to enjoy a peaceful trail ride down the hill and past the pond on our 45-acre farm.

Henry has always loved animals and knows a lot about their traits, behaviors and habits from the many books he has read, but connecting one-on-one with a 1,500-pound horse has given him great confidence and a deeper understanding of himself and others.

“I love how all the horses have personalities,” Henry says talking about the many horses he has gotten to know at Fieldstone over the years including Sundance, Blue, Nugget, Empire, Dillon and now Bert, his “go-to” horse on Saturdays.

Beyond horses, his mom says the community of people at Fieldstone Farm has helped Henry grow, as they challenge and support him each week. “They are the kind of people we want to be around,” she says.

Henry says sometimes it’s hard to get up on a Saturday morning and he comes to the farm in a bad mood or stressed out about homework. But after his ride and connecting with the horses and friends at the farm, he always feels more relaxed, which creates a happier
mindset for the rest of the day.

“It’s nothing super complicated. It’s just a horse. A horseback riding reset,” Henry, 14-year-old-student