By Lesley Flaherty, MSW, LCSW

Autumn began with Aspire’s third trip to the Aspiration Summit in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The trip was made up of eight young adults and four of our staff, including Executive Director Scott McLeod, Director of Teen and Adult Services, Brett Mulder, Child Program Manager, Elise Wulff, and me, Career Counselor for the Internship Program.

As a member of the Aspire Internship Program team for several years now, I had heard wonderful things about the Aspiration Summit. Whether it be about the breathtaking scenery, the countless activities, or the long-standing relationships formed, I dreamed about being a part of this amazing event. This year I got that chance, and am forever grateful for the experience.

Many of this year’s participants were young adults I had worked with in one capacity or another. Whether it be from a summer I spent as a job coach in the Aspire Transitions Program, or in an intake meeting for our Summer programs, or from the Internship Program, I was excited to be around so many familiar faces and even more, eager to see the growth that I had heard so much about from past groups. The primary focus of the Aspiration Summit is therapeutic horseback riding. This form of animal assisted therapy has proven to beneficial to individuals on the autism spectrum by increasing self-confidence, concentration, self-awareness, sensory integration, verbal and nonverbal communication. It is known to promote socialization and movement toward achieving goals in their personal lives.

The Jackson Hole Therapeutic Riding Association staff sought to promote all of these areas in the three short days of lessons. The team began by slowly introducing each rider to their horse, breaking down the basics of riding, and discussing “horse-onalities” or the nonverbal behaviors of each horse. The riders were also encouraged to participate in the grooming and saddling, guiding the horse, and eventually mounting and riding independently.

I have always known about therapeutic horseback riding but had never seen it in practice. As a former horseback rider turned social worker this was totally my cup of tea! Within the first ten minutes of our first lesson I began to truly understand the unique bond between person and animal. It was one that required each rider to flex their 3 S muscles; social competency, self-awareness, and stress management. It required riders to appropriately communicate with instructors if needing additional guidance, as well as one another while completing group drills. It helped to increase self-awareness by helping to focus on other people and their horses, and challenged each rider to consistently reflect on their emotions and analyze how this could impact the behavior of the horse in real time. This was no easy feat for many, especially for some who had never met a horse prior to this trip. All were pushed out of their comfort zone to some degree and it was unbelievable to watch the growth of each participant in a short amount of time. Like in years past, the trip culminated with trail ride through the base of the Grand Tetons. It may have been cold but the sun was out and the views were spectacular.

One of the final nights of the trip, our Director, Scott, commented about how difficult is to describe this trip in words. Despite every moment being documented, it truly is a unique experience that cannot be accurately summed up in a few words. I think that is what makes this trip so special. The experience of traveling to a new place with people you hardly know while being pushed out of your comfort zone regularly are truly transferable and adaptable skills. These skills are not easy to acquire, but highly valued, like a rare gem. As a member of the MGH Aspire team, I am delighted to have been there to see all of these new experiences happen in the moment knowing it will help our participants go further and reach even higher for their goals.

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