Maddie is four years old, loves horses, and likes to keep moving. And when I say moving, I mean barreling forward with arms ready to embrace the next experience.
She’s a pip—defined by Merriam-Webster’s as one extraordinary of its kind.
Maddie has another definition, one that characterizes her spunk, social bluntness, and sensory-seeking nature as high-functioning Asperger’s syndrome. The DSM-V has reclassified this as autism spectrum disorder, but the symptoms remain the same.
I’m lucky to know Maddie as well as her mother, Shāna Cole, who co-owns Tree of Life Counseling and supervises my work there as a licensed professional counselor associate. Shāna has been my mentor since graduate school days, and she is one amazing therapist and can-do gal. The pip doesn’t fall far from the tree.
Shāna, who knows about my EAGALA training and interest in equine-assisted therapy, suggested I pair Maddie with my horse, Mystic. I didn’t hesitate. I had read and wept over the true-life book Horse Boy (also a documentary), in which horses help heal a profoundly autistic boy. I’d visited Eye of A Horse in Florida and watched horses work their magic with a group of teens on the autism spectrum.
On a joyously green Saturday in April, Maddie came out to Flintrock Farm for her first therapeutic session. She hurtled out of the car, eager to see Mystic and get the ball rolling. She didn’t hesitate to pat him, stroke his tail, touch his hooves, and sidle closer than most adults would dare. When I gave her a grooming brush, she tackled Mystic’s tail with singular focus. I sprayed conditioner, she brushed. Spray, brush. We worked together, forging a triadic connection: human-horse-human.
“I’ve never seen Maddie immersed for so long,” Shana marveled. “She’s drawn to strong textures—that’s her sensory need—so I bet his bristly tail feels good to her.”
I saddled Mystic, then asked Maddie to help me walk him out of the barn. We shared the lead rope; every time she hurried forward, I reminded her to stay even with Mystic’s shoulder. This provided a lesson in spatial and relational sensitivity, not to mention horse safety.
Maddie, who lives in the moment while heartily priming for the next one, was ready to ride Mystic pronto. Most people show hesitation when they get on a 1,000-pound animal, but she did not. “Let’s go!” she ordered as soon as I hoisted her into the saddle.
I walked Mystic in slow, careful circles, letting Maddie adjust to Mystic’s swaying movement. Because she had no fear, she moved easily with him. As she grew more balanced in her seat, I brought him to a gentle trot. She bobbed in the saddle, delighted. “Go fast again!”
Most novices stiffen when a horse moves faster, but Maddie had the opposite reaction: she bobbled and jounced and giggled. “Again! More!”
By the end of a sustained trotting session, Maddie’s energy had shifted. She was calm, grounded, and centered. Shana explained that bouncing, hanging upside down, and spinning are calming activities for Maddie. These movements stimulate the proprioceptive and vestibular systems, helping children on the autism spectrum locate their bodies in space and develop balance and coordination.
Whatever the scientific explanation, the proof was in the pudding: Maddie was mellow. She lolled against a hay bale, eating pretzel sticks, looking entirely sated.
“Thank you,” Shana said. “This is amazing. When can we do it again?”
We’ve since had two more equine sessions, with continuing focus on spatial awareness (“Keep step with Mystic—don’t run ahead!”), cueing into others’ emotions (“Ears back means he’s not happy”), and body movement (“Feel how your body is swaying side to side?”).
Each session starts with Maddie running toward me, arms outstretched, shouting, “I missed you, Mary! I love you! I missed Mystic! I love Mystic!” followed by a feet-off-the-ground, arms-wrapped-and-locked hug that goes straight to the heart and lodges there permanently.
“You’re the best, Mary. You’re so nice. I love you.” Maddie smiles, pure delight, all id.
“I love you too. You’re a pip.”
We pick up our grooming brushes and turn our attention to Mystic, who stands quietly in the barn aisle, waiting to teach us both.