Our Saddle Up Spring 2017 Program came to an end this past Saturday, and I was astonished at how quickly the past 10 weeks flew by! As the Community Outreach intern in Miami I was responsible for overseeing the recreational program along with Carlos, our incredible volunteer from El Paso Ranch. About 10 children participated in this low-cost, recreational activity to make bonds with the horse, integrate their senses, and interact with other children on the spectrum.
When I was assigned this responsibility at the beginning of my internship with the American Autism Association, I was nervous to say the least. I had never held a supervising role before let alone one to supervise a group of children with unique special needs, and my experience with horses was zero to none. Fortunately I had comfort knowing my brother with autism, Nicolas, would be a participant so I would have the support of my family there. Once I arrived at the ranch and met the participants and their parents, I felt silly for being nervous. Every single child was so excited to be there and the parents were overjoyed to start the program that I just couldn’t help but feed off that energy.
I’ll be honest I had never understood the science behind animal therapy. I am studying biology and psychology so it is within my nature to question everything. When I heard about the program I thought it would be interesting to register my brother, but I didn’t have any expectations in regards to the impact it would make on him, or the other children. I was even a bit weary because some children, like my brother, tend to stray from animals and riding a horse is not an easy feat for a child that fears big animals.
As each child rode the horse, the other children waited for their turn as they made crafts and explored the ranch. There were a few veterans of the program that handled the ride with such grace and serenity, but there were also a few newcomers whose rides didn’t start off as gracefully. These kids were the ones that really made me understand the magic of horse therapy. I closely observed my brother (just as any big sister would) as he had never experienced riding a horse or even touching a horse before. He wasn’t too happy once he realized he was next to ride. He fought my parents and Carlos but eventually got on the horse frowning. I stayed to make crafts with the other kids but once I saw Nicolas riding back, his face completely changed. He looked relaxed and at peace, the blissful face similar to that of when he wakes up from a nap. This exact expression of blissfulness and peace was the expression every child came back with.
As the weeks went on, I got to know each family a bit better. Parents and caregivers would talk to me about their struggles with autism, or share a funny story. Parents would talk amongst themselves and share tidbits of information on things that worked and didn’t work. The children would share crayons and toys or create a finger painting masterpieces together.
As a sister of a individual with autism, and a science student I thought I knew almost everything there was to know about autism. This program very quickly taught me that was so much more to learn. I was fortunate enough to meet hardworking, dedicated parents that taught me the meaning of unconditional love and sacrifice for their children. I was fortunate enough to have a group of children as quirky and loving that taught me that autism was more than just a label. Each child had their own unique personality that stood out from the rest. They made me laugh, they made me run, they got me elbow deep in finger paint, and they also made this program an absolute joy.
Thank you to all the volunteers, parents, family members, and participants for a successful Saddle Up program. Stay updated through our newsletter to register for the next session!