Friday, November 16, 2012

Horses of Hope

Support can ride on all types of trails

Support can come in all types of forms and sometimes in very unexpected ways.  After we got Jake's autism diagnosis when he was two and a half years old, our three sets of parents wanted to do what they could to help out, even if we didn't live anywhere near them.  During the summer of 2009 we were living in San Antonio, Texas and all sets of parents had to fly in if they wanted to visit us.  We were stationed in Lackland Air Force Base, and during our second year there, Alex was deployed to Iraq while I was pregnant with our twins.  Even though we were only there temporarily, we planted some roots and have some Southwestern family history there.

Fortunately for our family, we ended up getting two back to back assignments on the same base.  Alex worked the first two years at the base legal office, and the third and fourth years in the Area Defense Council.  This was a truly a great thing because had we moved on a regular PCS cycle, (permanent change of station), that summer of 09, we would have had to move shortly after our twins were born and right around the time of Jake's new autism diagnosis.  We already had way too much going on.  We were only too happy to stay for two more years, catch our breath and catch up with our newly changed life.

I always say that we lived a lot of life during those four years that we spent in San Antonio.  Aside from the deployment, the twins being born at the hospital at Lackland and Jake being diagnosed by a developmental pediatrician in that same hospital, one other new thing took place during that time.  Little did we know what a big thing this new little thing would become.


Alex's mom owned and trained a horse and has been very devoted in working with it as she still does now.  She came to us one day and wanted to have an important conversation about Jake.  She wanted to have him start taking horse riding lessons, as her grandmother's gift to him.  We then read several articles about kids with autism responding in a special way to horses, and how horse riding could be used to support other more standard therapies for autism.  Equine therapy, done with the aid of a horse, has proved to be something very helpful for many kids coping with autism and other special needs as well.

We were open to this idea and intrigued by the possibility of this alternative therapy as a supplemental therapy for Jake.  We started looking for barns that taught kids with special needs and found one, about forty minutes away from our home in Boerne, Texas.  A lady owned the ranch and several horses that were trained to work with kids with special needs, and basically taught out of her back yard.  One of the horses there was so sensitive that it was even able to detect on-coming seizures in epileptic children before they took place (this was not one of the issues for Jake though).  By the time that Jake started his first private half hour long lesson, he was only three and a half years old.  Alex drove Jake on Saturdays to his lessons, and the twins and I would join them when we could.

Since this wasn't a typical horse riding lesson, Jake's instructor had different stations set up and had him walk through the various stations to complete a task.  He got to "walk on" only after completing each task and had to actually use his words to have the horse move on.  Some of the tasks involved picking out various objects (toys, colored paper, cards with letters and numbers on them, small musical instruments).  She would ask him to tell her what was on the card, what color the object was, or to pick a correct object from the bucket.  Most of the tasks involved having to use some speech, which is one of Jake's deficits.  This was really good for him in the sense that there were many motivators there, and the main thing is that he was almost constantly in motion.

This had the double benefit of stimulating many muscles and being relaxing all at once.  It is often also much easier to bond to an animal than to a person, for kids that don't have much/no speech or social skills.  As they learn to command the horse in a non verbal way, they learn to take control and be in charge.  One of our fears early on was that Jake had little situational awareness.  We worried about his safety.  Learning to ride a horse introduced him to valuable skills that taught him self-awareness as well as situational awareness.  These life lessons had further benefits of possessing a great physical activity as well as a possible life-long passion. 

Other tasks involved throwing a basket ball into a hoop while being on the same side of the hoop, and at other times, throwing the ball into the hoop while crossing over the body, thus having to rotate the upper part of his body to complete this task.  Additional activities included walking on the trail and trotting, which he really enjoyed, and would smile and giggle while bouncing on the horse.  Eventually he started requesting "more trotting."

Each time he completed an activity he would either have to tell the horse to stop by saying "whoa," or tell the horse to continue by saying "walk on."  He didn't initially want to use his words, but he quickly learned that he had to use them to make the horse do something.  Back then, he was only able to use one word at a time, mostly for simple one-word request, like "juice" or "book."  Over time, along with his daily ABA therapy and weekly speech and

occupational therapies, he started to be able to string two and three words together.  Now at the age of six, we are at a point where he can say a whole five-six word sentence, thanks to dedicated therapists, teachers, and our 24-hour a day consistent reinforcement of therapy principles.  From the beginning, it was apparent to his instructor that he was very well balanced on the horse, and that he had very good gross motor skills, as well as good physical strength.  With many aspects of riding the horse, Jake seemed to be a natural.  Learning the communication skills was the challenge for him.  We were happy that we stumbled upon something that he may get to be very good at, something that could possibly become his passion.

"More Trotting Please"

We moved to our third assignment (second location) to Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery Alabama a year ago in July, 2011, and continued on with equine therapy.  We found the right place for Jake called: MANE (Montgomery Area Non-Traditional Equestrians).  The MANE Idea is about horses and hope - how horses can help to facilitate learning and be therapeutic.  MANE specializes in catering towards special needs.  It is a much bigger place than the barn in Texas, spanning several acres and is also funded by grants.  The grounds include a covered arena that could be used during most weather, riding trails, and a very special feature, the Sensory Trail.

The sensory trail is set up in stations including large wind wooded and metal chimes, a mailbox filled with different activity items every week, and several different activity stations that riders pass through, similar to the concept of the Texas barn, but on a larger scale.  The sensory trail also includes an outdoor covered arena.  The kids learn to groom and care for the horses and this also gives them a special bonding opportunity while they are not yet riding their horse.

The barn doesn't offer private instruction, only classes.   We didn't know initially how that would work for Jake since he learns best in one on one situations, but once he got started, he got used to the group structure quickly.  The lesson also involves taking turns, so he gets that good teacher to student quality, while learning to function in a social situation.  During his first year there, he had one other autistic student in his class, and now during his second year, there are two kids that also live with autism in his class.  Two or three volunteers help the rider at each horse, not including the instructor.

"Walk On"

The barn is not far from our home. I take Jake during a weekday afternoon for a forty five minute group lesson - with the before and after grooming, we are there for about an hour.  This is my favorite drive of the week.  Within a few minutes, we are in the country, passing cotton fields and grazing cows.  It almost makes me feel like we are taking a trip back in time, to a more natural surrounding, where life flows at a slower pace.  I feel more grounded and at one with nature and it's gifts.  This gives me the peace of mind to reflect and be thankful for having a special opportunity like this for Jake.

Yes, support can come in all types of forms and sometimes in unexpected ways.  What's really wonderful here, is that a window of opportunity was created by someone who wanted to give Jake something that came from her heart, and that is a truly beautiful thing - she did a big mitzvah for her grandson.  Walking on to the next station on our trail, we hope to continue to ride with the horses of hope for years to come.

  Military Family Copes with Autism

Lily with Alex and Jake

The larger photo on the bottom is of Jake riding his horse at MANE on the Sensory Trail.

The article above was written by Kelly Deichert.  She is the editor of the Maxwell-Gunther Dispatch (our base newspaper here at Maxwell AFB).  She interviewed Alex and me in April, 2012 for Autism Awareness Month.  Her husband, Maj. Christian Deichert, took the photos for the article, and they are both good friends of ours that we've met only this past year.  I taped the article on one of our kitchen walls, and as I walk by it, I am reaffirmed of how far we have come.  Having this article written about our family is one of the things that has helped me become as open as I am today about the challenges that our family has faced.  Whether they realize it or not, by doing this, the Deicherts had supported our family in a very meaningful way, and for that we are so very appreciative.

It is my hope and goal with blogging to raise autism awareness in support to other families coping with autism.  I strongly believe that autism awareness = acceptance.  Alex started blogging shortly after me, and our individual recollections have consolidated into a family effort to raise awareness, build acceptance, and provide support by sharing about our own family's path.  If you are just at the beginning of your family's journey - never give up hope.  You are not alone.  Feeling isolated can lead to loss of hope.  There are so many families out there going through something very similar, and that is so empowering.  If you haven't already done so, it's time to reach out. 

As the door to finding a cure for autism stands firmly locked for now, 

an angel has left a window open with the horses of hope, 

and we will "walk on" with families across the globe

in our journey to find the right key.
Happy travels,
Lily and the Roses

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  1. Such wonderful therapy! Thank you for sharing!

  2. Thank you so much Elizabeth!! Have a lovely weekend.