A smile worked its way from 12-year-old Hunter Garsson’s heart to his round face, flushed red by the winter winds.
He sat astride a black horse. His small hands, peeking out from the sleeves of a thick plaid coat, grasped the reins. Feet firmly placed in stirrups, he stood up, just for a second, as the horse ambled forward.
Hunter’s mother, April Garsson, watched from several yards away, as she does every week for one hour. And each time she sees the budding skills and the deeply felt joy of her son, who was diagnosed with autism as a baby and who used to run away and break glass, it’s special.
“It’s my time to get to watch him and be proud,” she said.
Therapeutic ridingfor children with autism spectrum disorders is the most popular program at the Georgetown nonprofit Ride On Center for Kids, or ROCK, now in its 25th year. Of the center’s roughly 200 clients per year, one-fifth have an autism spectrum disorder.
This fall, the center began a study, funded by a $32,900 grant, that could demonstrate the therapy’s effectiveness. Along with a team from Southwestern University, the center is collecting data on how the behaviors of children with autism progress during therapy, said Emilie Ross, an instructor at the center.
Past studies from the center relied mostly on anecdotal evidence. One study done about three years ago by the center and Southwestern University found that equine-assisted therapy had no effect on the functioning of children with autism spectrum disorders. Later studies, which are scheduled to appear in publications such as the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, found that the therapy had a positive impact, Ross said.
The center began more than a quarter-century ago when CEO and founder Nancy O’Meara Krenek, who used to work as a school physical therapist for special-needs children, noticed something: When her kids started using power wheelchairs, they changed.
“They could go where they wanted; they could make choices,” Krenek said. “They would wake up.”
She quit her job, and in 1988, with a donated patch of land, four kids and one horse named Miss Prissy Texan, the center opened.
The center, about 25 miles from Austin, now has a large riding area under a roof, as well as the original, smaller arena smack in the middle of the horses’ pasture. The annual budget hovers around $1 million, with 60 percent coming from donations and grants, and the rest from tuition.
The average family pays $60 for a one-hour individual session, a cost that insurance rarely covers.
Horses help children with autism in various and unexpected ways, staffers at the center said. For a population that has trouble connecting with others, bonding with a horse can unlock many doors, Ross said. Seeing how a horse reacts to stimuli, like the tightening of reins, teaches the concept of cause and effect. Also important is the horse’s movement.
April Garsson said her son needs a lot of sensory input, a lot of motion, to calm his body and ground him in space. That’s why Hunter rides a Tennessee Walker horse named Dudley, who moves with his entire body.
Hunter, who is considered nonverbal, has also started speaking more since he began therapeutic riding. He learned to say “walk on” to get Dudley to move, and “whoa” to quickly stop his horse, Garsson said.
The happiness that spills over from riding Dudley has knit mother and son closer, said Garsson, who cherishes the 40-minute drive home to Austin.
But progress has been slow — it’s taken the four or so years Hunter has been riding to get this far, she said.
Garsson first heard about the Georgetown center from research and a government program, and she decided to give it a try. Hunter also does speech and occupational therapy through Canyon Ridge Middle School, as well as recreation and music therapy. He’s an intelligent boy who’s at a 10th-grade math level and likes penning haikus, sometimes about horses.
Though she grew up riding horses on a Louisiana farm, Garsson said Hunter is more of a natural than she ever was.
“I was afraid the first time, but he was never afraid on the horse,” she said. Hunter has won a medal and a ribbon in two different horseback riding competitions at the Special Olympics.
It doesn’t always go smoothly, though. Sometimes Hunter cries when he’s riding, although it might be for another reason, like a pain in his stomach, Garsson said.
There are plenty of safety measures in place at the center. Instructors and therapists, who walk alongside the horse, are accredited by the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International or trained by the American Hippotherapy Association. Horses are also trained and de-spooked, said Kailin Miner, the center’s development and marketing manager.
Texas has 72 centers accredited by a therapeutic horsemanship organization.
When Hunter dismounted at the end of his one hour, he gave a big hug to Ross, his therapist. Then it was out the gate to his mother, who had ready the blue plastic sheet with the alphabet they use to communicate.
She asked how it went, and Hunter used a pencil to rapidly point to a series of letters.