Six years ago this fall I took my then 5-year-old severely autistic son to a POAC (Parents of Autistic Children) event at Rein Dancer, a farm which provides a therapeutic horseback riding program for riders of all disabilities.
I confess I mostly attended to support POAC, as Justin had never shown
any evidence of liking animals, and I had a sneaking suspicion he would view
riding a horse with as much excitement as eating vegetables (it turns out I was
So despite his disinterest in furry friends my mom and I got him in the car and took him out to western Jersey one fall afternoon, and sat him on the gentlest horse of all time with a good deal of cajoling and prodding.
The entire ride lasted eight minutes and he tried to dismount three times. I sensed “jockey” was not in his immediate future.
Still, some instinct inside of me told me to try again with him, a gut reaction to this day I’m grateful I pursued. I signed him up for lessons, schlepped him out there, and within a month or two he was enraptured with riding, “eeeing” his little heart out on his steed for a day. He liked it so much I even found him a therapeutic riding camp he’s attended most summers since, where I discovered something shocking about my son.
It turns out my boy loves to perform. Frankly, he’s quite the ham.
On the last day of camp every summer the riders put on a show, the duration of which my son beamed, laughed, and made intense eye contact with me and my mother the entire time. I had rarely seen him this happy for so long a period, and decided to pursue opportunities for him to perform in other venues throughout the year. After much research we ended up at Copper Hills Farms in their therapeutic division (Happy Tails run by Lauren Sgroi,) and this past weekend he was able to perform in his first show, all decked out in his brand new riding attire, ready to go.
At first, I thought it was going to be a disaster.
Justin was agitated from the get-go, sensing that today would be radically different from his general lesson days. When it was time for him to mount he first rejected his helmet, then finally acquiesced and allowed me to lead him up the stairs to his ride. He thankfully got on, then proceeded to make his displeasure known for about a third of the show by whining profusely.
Then, about ten minutes in, he simply stopped.
My aunt and I watched as my boy straightened up in his saddle, took a new interest in his surroundings, witnessed the slightest smile spread across his face. He did all his trainer asked as she put him through his paces, even answering a question from the judge (Can you say “hi,” yes my son certainly can) that eventually earned him a blue ribbon in one of the three categories. I saw my son slowly take pleasure in the event, watched as yet another new world opened up to us, one outside of the confines of our home.
I admit, by the end I was already thinking ahead to the next event.
Eventually the show ended and the riders were led up to the fence for their photo opp (you know I wouldn’t miss that,) and I could see my son was eager to conclude his participation in the program, so we quickly led him back to the barn and freedom. As we walked back to the car I asked him if he had fun and he shook his head in a slight “yes,” a response for which on many levels I was grateful.
I smiled at my aunt as I put him in the car, then backed carefully into the dirt road leading us home. I looked in my rearview mirror to see Justin rocking out to Stevie Nicks (he is so my child,) and made a mental note I knew for once I’d remember.
Justin’s made such progress. Don’t be afraid to try new things.
Hell, just don’t be afraid.
And as we pulled into the driveway to conclude part one of our day I let the gratitude wash over me, coupled with a never-ending sense of pride for my son.
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