Meg Daley Olmert

Meg Daley Olmert

Made For Each Other


The Biology of the Horse Boy

Can children ride horses out of the depths of autism?

Posted Apr 02, 2009

I first starting hearing stories like this 16 years ago and immediately began to ask, "Why?" What is it about animals that inspires the mute to speak, make wild children mild, protects our hearts from the ravages of stress, and our fills our minds with a sense of wellbeing? These dramatic therapeutic effects are built on physiological changes such as lowered heart rate, blood pressure, and stress hormone levels. I wanted to know what biological mechanisms are triggered by animals that can make us healthier, happier, and more socially competent.

Oxytocin helps us make social connections in much the same way it does in other animals. It quiets the fear circuitry in our brains so that we don't automatically see everyone and everything as a threat. With our fight/flight reflex in check we are able to detect even the faintest glimmer of benign or friendly intention. And such positive social signals trigger a further release of oxytocin that encourages us to approach and interact with each other in cooperative and nurturing ways.

This oxytocin-enhanced knack for friendship seems to be just what autistic children are missing. In fact, children with autism have been found to have low levels of oxytocin. This might explain why their amygdalas fire up even at the sight of neutral or friendly faces, while the amygdalas of healthy subjects treated with oxytocin remain calm even while looking at threatening faces. For many autistic people, this hyperactive fear response makes eye contact a torture cutting them off from the rich repertoire of visual communication and connection. And gentle touch, another powerful releaser of oxytocin, can be painful to someone with autism.

Eye contact with animals does not seem to be as threatening to many autistic children. Therapists have found that the presence of a dog can inspire even the most isolated child to speak-at first to the dog, then to people. In a recent study, eye contact with dogs was shown to increase oxytocin in humans. Luckily, Rowan Isaacson was never shy about looking at animals, in fact he delighted in staring at real animals or photos of them. This urge to visually connect with animals is what caused him to throw himself down in front of horses in a pasture near his home.

And fortunately, horses are even more social and visual than us, which may explain why the lead mare was able to see in this writhing boy's eager eyes a deep desire to attach. She did not fight this strange boy or flee from him, but instead accepted him. And when Rowan began to ride her, the rhythmic, repetitive motion stimulated his pelvic nerves in ways that are known to release oxytocin. Certainly, Rowan's behavioral transformation signaled a rise in oxytocin. His repetitive gestures stopped and he began to communicate. Oxytocin treatment has been shown to reduce hand-flapping and verbal tics in autistic patients and improve their ability to comprehend non verbal communication, like the emotional meaning in a tone of voice.

The other wonderful thing about oxytocin is that the positive social encounters it encourages also causes it to be released in both parties-whether they are human or animal. This means oxytocin can create and sustain a social feedback system that knows no species boundaries. This is why we are not imagining the mental and physical sense of wellbeing we feel when we connect with animals. It's also why a horse can see the good in a boy and help him see the good in himself and others. As I explained in an earlier post, this shared neurobiological heritage is what created the human/horse partnership that proved to an evolutionary win/win. Apparently there are still some journeys only horses can take us on.