Mom and Son Find Help through Therapeutic Riding
Though today, sixteen-year-old Teddy is handsome, trim, and loves sports, he has never been popular. Teddy is severely autistic and developmentally delayed. "He was perfectly fine until he had his MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella inoculation)," Rebecca explains. "Afterwards, he lost his language ability. He lost all of his abilities, including eye contact and bonding, and it all happened really fast, within a month."
His parents, Rebecca and Dan Sargent, struggled for years to help Teddy control his violent rages, to learn to experience joy, and to communicate with the outside world, but he continued to get worse. Then when Teddy was six-years-old, Rebecca, who has multiple sclerosis, decided that since she loved horses, they would both try Therapeutic Riding. She found a therapist who practices hippotherapy near their home in Seattle. The therapist they chose works with children, youth, and adults that are physically and/or developmentally challenged, including kids who are blind and deaf
"I did it for me for MS and for Teddy for autism, so we both rode," Rebecca explains. "It helps with feeling a normal gait, it helps with balance, it helps with a feeling of control because you're on something big, and for some people, it gives them a sense of freedom because they're moving without assistance, like with a wheelchair." They both went for hippotherapy for around four years. Rebecca would ride on the nearby trails, while Teddy did a trick riding on a lunge line and fed his horse carrots.
When they first started, Teddy was non-verbal. Then he learned to express his happiness - by whinnying and snorting! "He would do that and laugh, so we could tell that it was reaching him. He loves horses, and horses don't take advantage of people if there's something wrong with them. They just take advantage of people that they know should know better! But they never took advantage of him. It helped with his verbal skills because he was able to say "horse" and "walk on." They told him to give the horse clues, like say 'walk on" or to give him a nudge, or say 'here's a carrot' when he feeds the horse, so he did learn to say the language needed for the horse," Rebecca says.
The biggest benefit was to find something that Teddy liked to do. "It was something that he enjoyed and he liked," she explains. "I think it helped him because it gave him a sense of accomplishment, and also, in a bigger social context, when you ride horses, people are interested in you because they think it's pretty eccentric. People will say, 'wow did you ride that horse?' Teddy would get a lot of attention and feedback, so he was able to feel that 'I'm special; I can do this.' It was very good for his self-esteem."
The facility also had social events for the kids who came for hippotherapy. "They would have a rodeo, or they'd have a horse show, or a big barbeque. They'd do a lot, and it was everything to these kids. They had an activity that they were successful at. You can be a good rider or a crummy rider, and still feel successful at it because it feels so good," Rebecca says.
Rebecca also reaped the benefits of hippotherapy for her MS, exercising her muscles by posting, cantering, and doing dressage. But the greatest benefits was the time she spent together with her son, engaged in an activity that he loved and that he was actively participating in. "I wanted Teddy to be able to experience what it was like to ride horses and enjoy them," she says, "just like I got to when I was a kid."