June 29, 2012
There are some children you see and never forget. One boy I will
never forget was autistic and at that awkward adolescent age. He was in respite care for the weekend. We
had too many children for the bananas we were serving as snacks. Not a problem. Not really…. We’d
cut the bananas in half for snack time and add some cookies and all would be fine. Ted came through the line with
his lunch tray to pick up the food. He must have been starving. Without even a moment’s hesitation, he picked
up the banana half and plopped it in his mouth, peel still attached. He grabbed his cookies and sat them on his tray
and never missed a step, walking to his place at the table. Ted was non-verbal. But he could make the most beautiful
bird sounds I’ve ever heard--better than some birds.
How much different his life might have
been, if he could have ridden a horse for therapeutic riding once a week from early on. We’ve seen other boys
in our program make stunning progress. One particular boy is now approaching that same age that Ted was at. Isaac
had an “autistic-like” diagnosis when he first started riding but that diagnosis has now been retired. I’m
not sure what they replaced it with. He has slowly, but surely gained language skills and I heard him make a sentence
last week that left me speechless. He had taken his horse to a stall and eventually re-entered the arena, holding something
that resembled a badminton racket. I said “What’s that” to him, not really expecting an answer I would
understand. He replied “This is what you catch toads with.” The volunteer standing next to him explained
that everyone was trying to locate and move the toad before a horse accidentally stepped on it. I was so impressed with
his language skills. He fully understood what was going on. He cared. And he shared.
May 7, 2012
A young boy came to the arena this morning with his father and mother. I didn’t know them. Debbie
brought them in and the parents quickly responded with the look “tell me you can help because we’re looking for
somebody that can”. Carol was there also and the mother of the girl riding in the arena was there and all three
of us interacted with them. We quickly learned that the mother of the girl currently riding had been riding with the
program for 10 years. What an endorsement! Carol and I introduced ourselves as board members. The parents talked briefly
about this little 9 year old boy, who had a kind of muscular dystrophy, and had been terribly neglected till they adopted
him two years ago. He’d never had hot food and preferred eating cold french fries. A neurologist in
town had suggested our program and they had talked to Gary on the phone. They had come out to see what it all was about.
Before long, Carol took the mother to see Dr. Nesbitt’s
new colt along with the son. I talked with the father for a little bit. Then Gary discussed the application papers.
Tammy, the physical therapist, listened to the father for a few minutes. The “visiting” mother talked with
the mother of the second girl who has just started her riding lesson. They had so much in common. Both had
adopted handicapped kids. Both home-schooled their children. Both had so many questions that only time would answer
about these tender lives they were now in charge of. Everyone was pleasant and things couldn’t have gone any better
till the little boy was asked by his father, “Do you like the horses?” The boy made an immediate gesture of “thumbs
down”. I was with the father and son alone after viewing the little colt and my heart sank. I reassured the father
that lots of kids just need a little time to get used to being around a horse. But I could tell there was a hesitancy
on the father’s part and he wasn’t so sure this would ever work out. The lesson that was going on
ended. The mother and those children left.
stood Lollypop, at the edge of the arena. Sarah had been giving the lesson and couldn’t have known what was going
on or how the mood of the little boy was evolving. But she had him over close to Lollypop in no time. “Do
you want to pet him?” He motioned no but somehow, when I looked again, he was holding part of the lead rope!
Carol had been leading Lollypop and had managed to find something that this little boy could hold on to and feel like he was
connected to the horse. Sarah said “You don’t have to touch him. Touch my hands and I’ll pet
him.” He was very hesitant but finally agreed to do just that, placing his hand on the back of hers---but only
for an instant. Everybody close to the situation enthusiastically cheered him. And in a few more moments, he was
petting the horse! His mother who had been sitting in a chair filling out the paperwork, came over to join him and his
dad. She sensed that something important was going on. The father understood what I’d told him earlier--that while
kids might benefit from the physical therapy aspects of this program, there is so much more to gain in terms of confidence
and self esteem.
This program changes lives of
the kids, but also changes the families. The parents saw that their son could take on a new challenge and conquer it.
There had not been many challenges that had been met with success. This was one.
March 5, 2012
I sat beside a mother earlier this month in the arena, while her 16 year old daughter with Down Syndrome rode
Babe, a beautiful therapy horse. After a few minutes, the instructor asked Allora if she was ready. She nodded
yes. Allora was handed the reins and the horse leader stepped to the side and she rode her horse alone, for the first
time. No side walkers. No horse leader. The smile on her face spoke loudly and triumphantly. Allora had accomplished something
so precious and her independence swelled. I glanced at her mother. She had tears in her eyes. Her mother said “I didn’t
think the day would ever come that Allora could do something like this on her own. I’m proud of her. But sad that my
little girl is growing up. She has watched her older sisters have their 18th birthdays, graduate from high school and move
out of the house. She assumed she was next. She knows she won’t go to college but still planned on moving out. Until
now, I didn’t see how it was possible, but now I do.”
I’ve been beside more than one mother who cried happy tears when the first step was taken or the first word spoken.
But it’s been a new experience to see mothers so overcome with pride that the tears spill over because their child finally
has accomplished something that raises self esteem. That’s a tough quality to measure. In today’s world where
bullying often takes over the headlines, we have to use very little imagination to see how the kids with some sort of disability
or delay suffer. Horseback riding has been one way that replaces that feeling of lowered self worth. Riding with a leader
or taking the reins by themselves, it doesn’t matter. These kids know that they can sit on a horse and not fall off.
They have conquered their fear and laugh with enjoyment as they ride one of our therapy horses. That helps shrink those bad
feelings other kids try to impose.
I’m a board member with the Flint Hills Therapeutic Riding Center. You
might have seen news stories about therapy horses helping kids and adults with autism, cerebral palsy, or other developmental
delays or problems, and how valuable this kind of program can be in helping them achieve their full potential. Maybe they
also mentioned in the story how expensive the program is due to the upkeep and food for the horses. Each of our riders pays
something for the session but it‘s not enough. With the economy slowly making a comeback, we hope we can eventually
be less dependent on donations. At present, however, we welcome any amount you can send our way.
Thank you for
reading my letter. Thank you for sharing your resources.