Teressa Tucker's son, Cameron, said his first word while riding a horse.
He was 5 years old and he said "Tess," the name of his therapeutic horse.
Cameron, now 11, was diagnosed at age 2 as severe on the autism spectrum. While working with her son in that moment of horseback riding, Tucker said she found her new calling: to help children with disabilities.
Growing up in southern California, Tucker always pestered her parents to ride horses and, because of her diligence, has been around horses her entire life.
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She moved to Charlotte with her husband, Mark, about 10 years ago. She gave up her law career in order to provide full-time care for their son and pursue her new passion.
The couple's daughter, Tayler, 15, does not have a disability. Her husband is a vice president of merchant services at Bank of America in Charlotte.
One of the methodologies Tucker used to pull her son out of the world of autism, she said, was therapeutic horseback riding. It helped. Last year Cameron was re-tested through his school, and his diagnosis was downgraded to moderate-to-mild.
"Therapeutic riding was huge because (Cameron) said his first word, and it broke the barrier we had with communication," Tucker said.
After witnessing the success of therapeutic horseback riding with her son, she decided to start Kids Rein. Tucker, 47, a therapeutic riding instructor and trainer for seven years, founded the nonprofit in 2003 with Phyllis Smeaton, 51, a critical care nurse at Presbyterian Huntersville. Smeaton has more than 25 years of experience in the medical and equine field.
Kids Rein is a member of the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association, and Tucker is a NARHA-certified instructor. Each therapeutic lesson is tailored to the individual's needs but can include anything from socializing and grooming to interactive games and riding. "We specialize in early intervention because of my son's little miracle," Tucker said. "With early intervention, we're able to reach them at a younger age and make a bigger impact on their quality of life. We're almost able to re-wire their brains."
Based on the Latta Equestrian Center at Historic Latta Plantation in Huntersville, the program caters to people with disabilities as young as 2 and as old as 61. Disabilities range from cerebral palsy to blindness to autism. Therapy aides in their verbal, behavioral, physical and cognitive development, and their emotional well-being, Tucker said.
"It's as pure as can be when they get on a horse," Tucker said. "They're sitting up high, they're in control of this gigantic beast and it gives them a form of self-esteem and confidence that can't be replicated anywhere else in a clinical setting."
Tucker's first student was her son, who has since lost interest in riding horses.
"He was able to communicate that with me, so I'm OK with that," Tucker said. "But I do expect him to return to it again."
Her second student was her Charlotte neighbor Caleb Davis, who has been working with Tucker for seven years. Tucker now has nearly 20 students.
Davis, who will turn 14 on March 21, has a mild form of cerebral palsy that mainly affects the movement of his left side, but his right side also is slightly affected. His twin brother, Josh, and sister, Hannah, 11, do not have a disability.
"This is the one thing he really does well," his mother, Jennie, said. "This is his special thing that the other kids don't do."
When Caleb started riding, he needed the assistance of two side walkers while on a horse. He has worked with a few different horses throughout the years, and he's been riding independently for about three years. He has progressed so much that he will participate in his first competition in April.
"It's made me more confident and has helped me try new things more," Caleb said. "It's fun and it gives me something to be proud of."
Caleb has most recently learned to post at the trot, which means he stands erect in mid-gait while keeping cadence with the horse - a feat that took him nearly seven months to perfect because of his disability.
Small successes like this prove to Tucker that therapy works.
"The smile when he gets it, the light that goes off in his eyes, is priceless," she said. "You see the magic, you feel the magic."