‘It changes everything’: How a Scottsdale horse farm helps kids with autism

A dozen students are blindfolded and slowly make their way toward horses at Hunkapi farm on a recent morning.

The students attend Gateway Academy, a private school in Phoenix that specializes in educating students with an autism-spectrum disorder.

Five horses are tethered to a gate, waiting patiently as the blindfolded students are guided by their classmates. The exercise improves communication of the students helping their blindfolded classmates, and requires the blindfolded students to trust their peers, and the horses.

Twice a week, the students make the trek to Hunkapi in Scottsdale, where they learn how to be aware of their bodies, interact with classmates, regulate their thoughts and manage their emotions and behaviors.

They also build relationships with the horses as they learn how to groom and ride them.

“It changes everything about their nervous systems,” said Terra Schaad, Hunkapi’s founder. “When I watch the kids ride the horses, I see busy feet become quiet, anxious minds turn to focused, wandering eyes change to determined, and clenched jaws morph into smiles.”

Hunkapi provides equine therapy to people young and old who have autism, attention-deficit disorder, addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Gateway Academy has taken its students to Hunkapi for 12 years.

With autism diagnosed in roughly 1 in 59 children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Hunkapi is fulfilling a need in the community, Gateway leaders say. 

A new report from the CDC shows a 15 percent increase in autism diagnoses in the country.

The science behind horses

Arizona State University’s Alternative Intervention Research Clinic began studying the effects of sports on children with emotional disorders in 1996. The study found horseback riding had the most positive effect, Schaad said.

The children showed improvements in areas such as self-esteem, self-worth and anxiety.

Schaad established Hunkapi soon after. The program began on the ASU campus before she moved it to Scottsdale.

The program is funded mostly through donations and contracts the farm has with insurance companies and schools that use the program.

A typical day at the farm teaches students to be in touch with their own bodies, doing exercises to loosen up and be present before interacting with the horses. They learn how to safely approach the horses.

They then learn how to brush and saddle the horse, and eventually how to ride.

Devon Lortie, a 13-year-old Gateway student, said she was initially scared of the horses.

That changed the first time she rode one.

“It was just perfect,” Lortie said. “It was really the closest I could get to riding a dragon.”

Visitors are guided through the process by Hunkapi instructors certified through the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH) as well as therapists and teams of volunteers. 

PATH was formed in 1969 to promote equine-assisted activities and therapies for individuals with special needs. In Arizona, there are 140 sites that use PATH-certified instructors and programs, according to the association’s website.

“We’re committed to taking equine therapy out into the world so we can help the world fear less and love more,” Schaad said.

Reach the reporter at Lorraine.Longhi@gannett.com. Follow her on Twitter: @lolonghi.

 

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