A gecko ran across the whitewashed wall chased by Iris’s silhouette, a shadow tied to her as she tiptoed down the path beside the house. With her shoes on, she took my hand to the gate, ‘Let’s go riding’ she said, ready for the days adventure. Could this be the day where riding finally worked? I had been hoping it would ever since we first saw the horses riding along the dirt road to the bohemian beach town Montezuma. The seeds for this had been planted long ago. Just after her diagnosis at two years old we had tried many times to introduce Iris to riding but with very little success. I realised back then that my hopes were heavily clouded with my own desires and passions as I had loved horses and ridden since a child. More recently, I worked alongside another charity which used horses in their therapy program for children on the autistic spectrum: I was once again hoping that Iris might forge a connection with horses. They had been a massive part of my life so when I saw Iris was excited to see them, it sparked up my forgotten wish for us to ride together.
With the pristine beaches, virgin rainforest and abundant wildlife we were all in high spirits. In fact the only problem seemed to be very loud and boisterous monkeys keeping us up at night. That and the pesky coatimundi, who with their long snouts and sharp teeth were masters at breaking in and stealing our food.
We got in the 4×4 and made our way down the bumpy track, shafts of sunlight penetrating through the trees to the muddy terrain below. Iris pointed at a large Blue Morpho Butterfly for me to see. Its wingspan must have been around 20cm, with bright metallic wings beating slowly in the air. The butterfly was almost in slow motion, shimmering iridescent shades of blues and greens contrasting with its brown camouflaged underside. Each time I saw one I was filled with amazement. They are such an astonishing sight that your eyes long to hang on to them as long as possible, but they would float away with the breeze into the jungle, to be lost in the dense green foliage. In many cultures butterflies are associated with a deep and powerful representation of the soul and spiritual transformation. The blue is thought to symbolize healing. Many natives of the rainforest see the “blue butterfly” as a wish-granter. Before I lost sight of this blue sprite I made a wish: let this be the day that Iris and I could happily ride together.
We turned left onto the main road, twisting up through the tropical valleys where the ranch lay in a pocket of green fields. A strange sight in the middle of the forest: fenced pasture and cattle that looked like they should be on the African plains.
Iris got out and was greeted by a huge dog but she ignored him completely. She went up to the first horse that was already tacked up and tried to get on. She could be focussed to the point of seeming rude sometimes: I had to remind her to wait and that we needed to find out which horse would best suit us.
My plan was to ride with her sitting in front of me: that way I would be there for her, whisper to her about the nature and animals we saw and help her ride. I didn’t know how she was going to react to being on a horse again and I felt safer thinking at least I would be with her. It was how we had ridden all those years ago when she was 2 years old. But once we were on our trusty steed this time I realised a flaw in my plan: Iris’s height. My view was out to both sides and a little to the front but Iris’s sun hat obscured some of the way ahead.
We made our way out onto the track and through the jungle. The owner of Indiana Horse Tours, Deanne, rode beside me, I asked her why she had settled here: twenty five years ago she came to Costa Rica and didn’t want to leave. She bought a few horses and began doing the tours. Then she bought a little property and the herd became bigger so Indiana Tours became her way of life. She was trained as a veterinarian which explained why she was surrounded by animals: ten dogs and a few cats roamed the property. She talked to me about her ethos, how the horses lived in a herd and the softness with which she rides them. She respected the horses like I did, appreciating each individual personality and I felt at ease around her. Her approach seemed to reflect my own and reminded me both of my years in France with all of my own horses and the methods I use with Iris.
As we walked up a steep hill further into the forest I felt like I was in my early twenties, back in Venezuela, trekking through the Andes. I loved this sense of freedom as we strode on ahead of the others. It was a freedom I had thought was behind me: sometimes I feel lost in all of the responsibilities of being a parent of a unique special child. Horses had once been my life, and now after many years they were back with us. Most excitingly I could tell that Iris was finding a powerful connection too.
Her social skills had developed and she was able to engage with the people around her, take instructions and guidance where needed with very little stress. I hadn’t been able to understand before why riding hadn’t worked for her, but now the pieces were slotting into place. Iris had shut herself off to horses in the past because while she was with them, humans came along too. When she was little there would be someone either side of her, chatting and trying to get her to engage. At that point she couldn’t manage all the stimuli or deal with the sensory information coming in at her from every angle. It was too much.
That was where Thula excelled in Iris’s world, a silent partner by her side. I thought about what people do while they are with a cat: they make predictable movements, they sit beside the cat and stroke their soft fur, they speak in soft low tones and usually move away after a few minutes. Cats provide quiet moments of stillness that are moments of peace. Horses are all about movement and communication as herd animals: when we are with them we naturally mimic that type of behaviour and turn into more social beings. But that only works if we are ready.
As I understood this, it made me realise we need to see the whole picture, step away and understand what our children need and at what stage. Certain animals carry with them characteristics that will fit a child at certain stages in their development. I was realising the potential and how big the role could be for animals when working with children with additional needs. It may not always be a cat; it could be a dog or a horse, or even a farm animal like a goat who are hyper social animals. They all have their own qualities which we can work with to help our children, to aid progression and open up their worlds.
Iris watched the team untack our horse when we got back. She became fascinated as each horse was dealt with, going from the water station where they were sprayed and back again to the stable to see the next one. Her arms folded behind her back, she studied what was happening with great interest and even got involved in helping. Watching her, I made a plan in my mind to find more places where she could ride. Once home I would contact the equine therapy yard that we visited all those years ago and we would try again. It would be a chance for us both to learn.
There is no telling how independent Iris will become in the years to come and that can weigh heavily on my mind. But the more we pushed the boundaries of that potential outcome, the more something was released. The freedom began to come back and I could forget to care about all the ‘what if’s’. I could be there in the moment experiencing its joy with Iris. It felt like a perfect day. As we headed for home after spotting some monkeys, we caught sight of another pair of blue beating wings: it was as if the ethereal creature was telling me my wish had been granted.
We are raising funds for our next trip to see the incredible forests in California with Iris’s 2019 calendar
This will make a beautiful Christmas gift for your loved ones, spreading hope and autism awareness too.