It all started with a little boy with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and play-doh horses…
Kuniko has worked with individuals ages two to eighteen with ASD both as a behavioral therapist and case manager. One of her participants had a very difficult time using expressive verbal communication (EVC; speaking words) but she found that if she brought out play-doh he would ask for her to make a horse. Over time, the simple request of “Kuniko make horse please” evolved to more complex requests, including a specific number of something, riders, tack, and actions. He was asking for two horses, or a brown saddle, black reins, and a yellow cowboy (or a cowgirl, or both) with a red hat. When asked how the horse felt he might say, “Horse is thirsty” or “hungry” and then they would pretend to have the horse drink and eat. Keep in mind, these are physical states that he could not express about himself to his parents or caregivers. He would ask for the horse to eat and drink certain things (who knew horses liked cereal with milk?!?). He had the horses walk and then run slow and fast, saying “neigh” and snorting the whole time. When they were done and tired they would say ‘goodnight’ and go to sleep and snore. Kuniko was thrilled with the amount, variety, spontaneity and quality of EVC around these little play-doh equines and wondered what would happen if he met an actual horse.
She asked around and found a horse whose human was open to a meeting. She didn’t know what would happen, but felt that she needed to try. She was excited and a little bit nervous!
The meeting was absolutely magical; the little boy spontaneously and independently used EVC to point out horses running across a hill and later to tell Kuniko, “Good time!” and “Good job!” The most remarkable moment came later at dinner when the little boy was stimming (behavior consisting of repetitive actions or movements) by bouncing in his seat and flapping his hands. Historically when he stimmed Kuniko and his family did not know what was happening: if he was sad, happy, in pain, excited- but that night he said, “See horse run”. In a moment when using EVC/words would probably be the most difficult, he was able to share what he was thinking about!
From this moment on Kuniko was determined to find a way for him to work with horses and to learn as much about them and equine assisted therapy.
She volunteered for two years at a Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH Intl.) Premier Accredited Riding Center where she helped with sessions for veterans, individuals who have special needs, or were in recovery from addiction. She also volunteered for an organization that provides equine assisted psychotherapy (EAP) for one year. She studied and trained and became a Certified Equine Interaction Professional as an Equine Interaction Facilitator and Educator (CEIP-EIF, CEIP-ED) from the Certification Board for Equine Interaction Professionals (CBEIP). Throughout all of this she wondered how she could further use her specific skill set, experience, and love for animals in a way to be of service.
Though she loved her work as a behavioral therapist and case manager she didn’t like that she was limited to interactions as allowed by the companies she worked for. The companies only allowed services that checked all the boxes mandated by insurance companies and activities that didn’t disrupt the companies’ bottom lines. She felt that she should be working for the families’ best interests and not the companies’- and if a space didn’t exist that was open to healing, growth and learning in the many different forms it could take, then the answer was to create one. With a lot of support, encouragement, hard work and love she started Helping Hoof.