Rhythms that matter: the kinetic melodies and matterings of autism and equine therapy practices in the UK and USA.
Item statusRestricted Access
Embargo end date25/11/2021
This thesis is an ethnography of practices of equine therapy used as interventions for autistic people in the UK and USA. It answers the overarching research question: How is autism enacted by models used to understand the efficacy of equine therapy practices? Analysing data from 16 months of fieldwork I show that autism was perceived as a primarily sensoriallymediated condition produced by the person’s embodied inhabitation in the environment. Endocrinological and neuroscientific theories, and personal experiences were incorporated to explain how the therapy worked and relatedly, to understand the condition of autism. I show that vital forces of “energy” and “intent” were believed to score through environmental, sensorial, endocrinological and neurological scales and to transmit sympathetically, and therapeutically, across horse, client and practitioner. These multispecies transmissions were understood to resonate via a property of “flightiness” shared by autistic clients and horses perceived to be the result of sensory sensitivities and an overactive “fight or flight” response. I argue that material metaphors of bodily “integration” and disintegration, “pressure” and its release, and being in and out of “balance” in particular were central to how therapeutic efficacy was perceived to be achieved. These were indeterminate simultaneities of forms of movement and stillness used by my interlocutors to frame equine therapy as a way of calibrating the highly inconstant, dynamic bodily systems perceived to be involved in the autism-equine therapy nexus. I argue that therapeutic efficacy was understood to be orchestrated by bringing various parts and wholes of the lively bodies of clients, horses and practitioners into proportion and harmony, and in coproducing a kinetic melody. Practitioners of the therapy aimed to bring clients into synchrony with the rhythmic movements of the horse, and more broadly, with the rhythms of social time. I propose three therapeutic rhythms to comprehend these models of efficacy, their perceived material effects and the interplays of movement and stillness bound up therein: 1) the calming rhythm of horseback movement, 2) the anchoring rhythm of weekly sessions, and 3) a rhythm produced by the expectation of achieving therapeutic goals in the future. In both senses of the word, these were rhythms that mattered. I argue that AM practices and the biofeedback loops evoked therein acted as lively sites in the morphing of autism; whereby the condition became framed and experienced in new ways. The epistemological uncertainty surrounding the condition, its enduring heterogeneity and kaleidoscopic character allow the condition to act as a mirror on society. The thesis argues that firstly, promoting autism as a sensorially-mediated condition produced in engagements with sensory and social worlds reflects broader societal preoccupations with the interface of mind4 body dualism and holism. Secondly, it argues that the perceived amelioration of autistic symptoms by AM practices reflects popular, scientific and scholarly concerns about what it is, exactly, that differentiates human animals from nonhuman animals. Each section of the thesis details a niche coproduced by humans and horses that I argue was required for this sensorially-mediated kind of autism to emerge as a way to be a person. This thesis contributes to the scholarship of humananimal studies, the anthropology of the body and autism studies.