When a nonverbal, 4-year-old boy with autism speaks his first word while on horseback, and that first word is the name of the horse, therapeutic riding is clearly having positive effects.
This little boy, now a teenager, is the son of Teressa Tucker, who is one of the founders of Kids Rein.
Kids Rein is a Huntersville nonprofit organization that provides therapeutic riding to children with special needs, including autism, cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury, mental and physical challenges, muscular dystrophy and more.
Teressa Tucker and Phyllis Smeaton founded Kids Rein in 2004 and achieved nonprofit status in 2007. Both are certified therapeutic riding instructors by PATH, the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International.
Both founders had previous experience with therapeutic riding. They founded Kids Rein to specialize in early intervention. Most therapeutic riding organizations do not let children under 6 to 8 ride.
Kids Rein lets children as young as 2 ride in the belief that the earlier a child begins treating a special need, the better. Tucker has her own son as proof. Volunteers and family members help the young riders by walking beside the horse and participating in therapeutic activities.
"We are very family-oriented," said Tucker. "We like to incorporate the entire families."
Smeaton is a full-time nurse as well as co-founder of Kids Rein. Her first experiences with therapeutic riding were as a volunteer. While she helped a child with cerebral palsy on horseback, the therapist suggested the child try riding at a trot.
Smeaton was surprised by the suggestion, unsure of how the boy would do it. When she saw the big smile on the child's face as he held himself up on a trotting horse, she was hooked on the idea of therapeutic riding, she said.
"Come out a couple of times to volunteer, and you will be captivated," said Smeaton.
Part of what makes therapeutic riding effective is that horses have a similar gait to humans, so while riding, children who are unable to walk build the muscles they need to hold themselves up.
"Kids in wheelchairs and on walkers are used to looking up at people," said Tucker, "but on horseback, they are looking down." This perspective change alone can positively affect a child, she said.
Kids Rein has tested more than 100 horses for therapeutic riding but currently uses only seven horses. The standards are very high to select horses to carry children with special needs.
Some of their horses are an 18-hand-high Trakehner breed named Pita and an Egyptian Arabian named Prophet. Pita was professionally trained for competition but retired after developing arthritis in her shoulder.
Tucker and Smeaton call Pita their "gentle giant." She acts as the alpha horse in the Kids Rein herd. Prophet was nearly wild when Kids Rein first tested him. Tucker trained him and found he was perfect for therapy.
He is named Prophet because of his intuitive sense of how to help each rider with special needs. Tucker calls him a "great healer."
Pita and Prophet exemplify how a therapeutic riding horse is chosen based on disposition rather than size or breed. It takes a horse with a sweet temperament that does not spook easily or show too much negative body language, such as holding the ears back.
"The horse is the one that does the healing," said Tucker. "Phyllis and I and the volunteers are the conduits."
Kids Rein depends on volunteers to help care for the horses and help riding children, and on donors to help with boarding and care of its horses and sponsorship of children. Recently the organization participated in Macy's Shop for a Cause event to raise money.
Many high school and college students who are required to complete community service volunteer for Kids Rein, including the UNC Charlotte equestrian team. The organization is also sponsored by Latta Equestrian Center and its executive director, Valerie Pearson, to help with boarding costs.
A long-term goal of the nonprofit is to offer therapeutic riding for free. They currently have such demand for their services that there is a waiting list. They are searching for a PATH-certified therapeutic riding instructor to help.