Horses and huge gains

Center combines therapy with horsemanship to benefit of special needs children

Diagnosed with autism, Anne Pearson's son spent his early years unable to walk, with professionals expressing reservations that he would ever become capable, when Pearson had the idea to put him on a horse.
His gains were remarkable and a year-and-a-half later, he was able to ditch the wheelchair completely.
"This is what grew out of it," Pearson said of her sprawling campus and nonprofit organization that now provides therapy at no cost to families. "And really, there is nothing else for them."
Funded through the San Andreas Regional Center, the school district and donations, the Monterey Bay Horsemanship & Therapeutic Center in La Selva Beach is a secured facility designed to serve those with special needs.
"There are actually very few places that work with this severity of kids," Pearson said. "They come to us in varying degrees, but for some of them, we are the last stop before they are admitted to an institution."
Considered a Crisis Prevention Institute (CPI), employees are trained to redirect and talk participants out of violent behavior. This is because some of the participants in their program are violent — hitting, kicking, biting and even breaking the bones of family members.
"These parents live with this every single day," Pearson said. "If they are lucky enough to get referred, we have had an enormously successful success rate."
Children coming in with 45-degree wheelchairs are developing the core strength to sit straight, eventually leaving behind even the smallest back support. Students struggling with suicidal tendencies are healing and making plans for college. Parents who are overwhelmed and feeling isolated are given reprieve. Overall, everyone involved can benefit.
"Our world isn't their world. Their way of communicating, how they view everything around them, is completely different from us," Pearson said. "We expect them to survive in a world we made and this results in enormous conflict. The person that loses out is always the special needs child."
To help adjust for this, in the young adult program they complete a variety of tasks and activities aimed at teaching them life skills, socialization, how to act in the work place and live independently or safely. The therapeutic center serves approximately 252 individuals a month, with 10 percent of them classified in the violent behavioral category. And according to Pearson, in several instances across the country where special needs people have come into contact with law enforcement, jail and bullets come before any successful communication takes place.
"People are becoming more aware and more fearful," Pearson said. "It is just miscommunication, there is something so wrong in that there isn't a balance."
And this is where the horses come in.
Being on and around horses can increase serotonin and oxytocin levels but what's more is the ability for them to regain control over their body.
"They get on a horse and they can be very tense and ticking and rocking, and when they pick up on the rhythm of the horse they completely calm down and relax," Pearson said. "It's amazing to see. Sometimes they go from hitting, biting and in five minutes they are calm and relaxed. It's huge. Little things are such huge victories for them."
While the program gives parents and caregivers respite, participants are learning and working on behaviors that can make home life difficult. For 17-year-old Joshua Parker, the campus has given him an additional benefit — the opportunity to interact with adults in real world situations.
"It is hard to find programs for kids with autism," his father Andrew Parker said. "Josh is getting older, as he gets older it is harder to find programs for him."
His father cites several areas he has watched Joshua Parker improve: balance, posture, core strength, courage to feed and pet the horses, and riding.
"It is huge, he loves it," Andrew Parker said. "And it is more social with more adults he gets to talk to. Now that he is 17, it is working out really well."
Twice a week Joshua Parker leaves Soquel High School to end his day at the therapeutic center.
"It's all about bringing them in and then getting them back out into the real world feeling self-satisfied," Pearson said. "They all just want to be normal, they want to know 'why can't I do what my brother does' — it's based off anxiety. Horses do something emotionally."
Pearson uses her program to teach them a process. Because children with autism can struggle with recognizing emotions in others, this tool is essential in order to bridge the communication gap.
"They take things completely literally," Pearson explained. "They can't discern between fiction and reality — a stress that isolates them constantly."
CPI instructor John Holbert said this focus on therapy happens off the horse, not just on the horse. Stressing again the importance of ritual and process, he said it also allows the riders and horses to develop a bond.
"Brushing, petting are things that are relaxing," Holbert said. "Tacking and untacking helps them bond, the process of getting the horse ready helps both of them is almost like building a friendship."
Holbert said he sees their progress play out in front of his own eyes on a day-to-day basis.
"I watch them learn to walk after they have been told they would never," Holbert said. "The world of autism is real and not something we should push away. For the things they can do, they are amazing."
The ages of the participants vary, with the one-year-olds being helped onto comparatively massive horses just like all the others. With 26 full-time staff members, around 30 to 35 volunteers and groups sponsoring and completing projects, the center is able to provide almost one-to-one assistance. They also have added a sensory-friendly gym and small animal farm, and continue to have a full line-up of projects they aim to complete.
"Making a difference is something you chase without knowing it." Holbert said. "We have that here."
Monterey Bay Horsemanship & Therapeutic Center is located on 475 Eucalyptus Way in La Selva Beach. For information, call (831) 761-1142 or visit