First, a little history. We found out through a teacher about a horse therapy program about 30 minutes away from our house. I read about equine therapy and about this particular farm and was so excited for the potential. We got on the wait list and in March 2011 got a call that we could start lessons. It was completely amazing. I watched the Wise Old Owl go from signing commands to whispering to audibly giving the horse commands. That was a huge deal! I was excited about what good core strengthening exercise it was for him. I loved seeing Herbie paying attention, following multi-step directions, getting lots of good sensory input as he groomed the horse, and grinning from ear to ear when he got to trot. I raved about the place to everyone I knew and made monetary donations beyond the very expensive riding fees. Fast forward a year. We had not been there for a few months for the winter. I was itching to get them back in the saddle. At the first ride, both kids rocked, they did everything perfectly including SMILING AND WAVING TO THE OTHER TWO KIDS IN THE LESSON!!! That was new from last year and I was so amazed. We had a few weeks in a row of awesome rides.
Then the Wise Old Owl actually started saying "hi" to the other kids, and the instructor decided that waving was not enough for Herbie. He needed to say "hi" as well. She prompted him several times and he could not do it. She asked why he would not say "hi" to his friend and he answered that she wasn't his friend. In hindsight, I don't think that was his reason, but her use of the word friend probably made him think to say that. So at home we we talked about how we define a friend and different types of friends and being friendly, etc. I encouraged him to continue smiling and waving. The next week was similar, with much prompting and no greeting. The following week, our babysitter took the kids and the Wise Old Owl was SO excited to show her around the place. However, it was not such a great time for Herbie. He was prompted again to say "hi," and apparently after a long time of awkward discussion he was told the next week he could not ride if he did not cooperate. I spoke on the phone with the instructor, asking her if he could whisper or mouth the words as a first step and she was of the opinion that he was being obstinate and did not budge in her position. She also made some comments about how he got too rowdy with his reigns and he was "pushing her buttons," I sensed a lot of anger, something I had never detected in her before. We were not getting anywhere discussing it over the phone so I ended the conversation.
For several days I tried role playing with Herbie but his anxiety was so evident that I decided not to push it. He stayed home and I took the Owl to the next lesson. I spoke with the instructor in person and tried to plead his case, pointing out that it is in fact incredibly common for kids with autism to have trouble greeting their peers! She kept saying that we just needed to push him, she was clearly not considering his point of view and I was incredibly frustrated. I suggested rewinding, perhaps introducing the idea of doing greetings on the ground (rather than mounted on the horses) and giving him some time to warm up to the idea. She agreed to the on the ground part, but still insisted that he audibly say "hi."
Herbie had been sick all week (painfully constipated, very unusual for him since he eats way more than the recommended 5 servings of fruits & veggies a day) and it all seemed to be stress related. This was the biggest stress for him, so we decided to end it. I felt sad going from absolutely loving the place and envisioning my kids attending there for years to suddenly leaving, especially since the Owl loved it so much. But it needed to be done. So I wrote a letter and after multiple edits to take out my real feelings, sent an email stating that the Owl would come for one more lesson so he could have closure and then we'd be done.
I second-guessed myself a million times. But then the next day, the instructor called, we had a very unpleasant conversation, and it confirmed my decision entirely. I went ahead and sent the Owl with the babysitter for his last lesson, at which they skipped the greetings altogether (to spite me??) and then trotted (Herbie's favorite activity) much much more than usual. The Owl came home practically in tears because he was so sore!! Usually the kids trot two lengths of the arena, and after the first, he will ask not to do the second and she will grant that request. His low muscle tone makes it so hard for him to control his body when he is bouncing up and down on a horse. But apparently this day, she denied his request to walk rather than trot and kept going multiple times around the arena. With his voice cracking, he told me, "Susie made me keep trotting and my butt hurts." The only positive thing to come of that is he no longer is sad to discontinue his lessons, he does not want to go back. Fortunately after 4 days of using the heating pad, he seems to be fine, but my brain is still going a mile a minute thinking of all the things I want to say to her! I am writing this epic blog post instead...
Well, we certainly learned a lot of lessons, which will be another post. Thankfully the end of May was capped off by a fantastic IEP meeting and a lovely Memorial Day weekend.