Mid-November 2015, my family and I moved to Austin, TX from Baltimore, MD. Myself, my husband and our 2-year-old son, Rory. My daughter was still baking but she made her arrival as an official Texan just three weeks later. Soon after McKenna was born, “Small-amore” (a nickname for Baltimore because no matter how big it gets, everyone knows everyone like a small town) showed up on our street. As it turned out, a fellow alum from my husband’s high school back in Maryland ended up living on the very same street as us. Josh JonesDilworth, CEO & Founder of Jones-Dilworth, Inc. (JDI), was hosting a regional alumni event for McDonogh High School graduates. Around that time, Josh extended an off er of desk space at JDI’s offices to Brad while we became adjusted to the area. To this day, we are still so grateful for Josh, and that offer was the gift that kept on giving. Though it was seemingly meant only for our adjustment period, Brad still works out of there when he can.
My husband quickly settled in and made friends with folks from the office and got to know some of the JDI team personally. I met many of the officemates, as well, since I would try to do something for the office every month. Sometimes I made lunch, and sometimes I would host a happy hour & dinner as a thank you to the Jones-Dilworth family for what they had done for us. One person we met was Alexa Ball, some of you reading this may know her as an HHR instructor. Right from the moment you meet Alexa, you realize she is young, fun, tenacious and a salt-of-the-earth lover of horses! Once summer rolled around, Alexa happened to invite us to the “Barn Bash” event since she was doing volunteer work at HHR at the same. She had explained to us that Healing with Horses offered therapeutic equine-assisted riding and, being that this event was a fundraiser, we wanted to support the ranch. Not only did we go, but we took the kids as well. Music, food, wine, plus horses. What wasn’t to love?! Rory was scared but intrigued by the horses, specifically Coolman at the time. Mckenna, as we learned, was totally uninhibited to pet or touch any of the animals- horses, donkeys and dogs alike (a trait she still shows off today). We enjoyed all of this fun & philanthropy while being utterly unaware of the fact that the Ranch would soon become an imperative resource for us to utilize.
At the time of our first Barn Bash, McKenna was an 8-month-old perfect yummy baby, developing quite beautifully. Rory was almost 3 years old, cute and handsome as ever. He didn’t have much language, but did have a majority of main gross motor skills that one would expect at that age. We were not overly alarmed by his lack of speech or particularly concerned that something might be profoundly “wrong” because our doubt was soothed by the presumption that he was a “late talker”.
Not long after the Barn Bash, we had Rory assessed for a speech delay, unaware of how severe his delay really was. We received a diagnosis of Severe Expressive & Receptive Speech Delay and immediately placed him in private therapy. Therapy was starting to help, but around the same time, Rory began showing sensory seeking behaviors. It was becoming apparent that what we were led to believe was speech delay was actually something else. My husband began pressing his belief that Rory was autistic. To be honest, I was in denial and slow to be receptive to the reality of it. At the very least, I was open to considering that he had a Sensory Processing Disorder. A few months into speech therapy, I reached out to Alexa about getting Rory into riding lessons and she immediately put me in touch with Patty. Based on what I was able to gauge about Rory’s input needs and some research I read suggesting that horseback riding was theorized to stimulate speech, I became a mom on a mission.
On March 16th, 2016, Rory fully began his journey at the Ranch. The official diagnosis of Autism from his Pediatric Neurologist rolled in not long after. Outside of grief, my devotion to my son took over. I knew Rory had a fear about animals in general, as he exhibited at the Barn Bash, but I also knew he could “exist” with them. What we found, and what Patty was immediately able to gauge, was that we needed to start with baby steps. This wasn’t going to be easy, but there were steps we could to take. Even though she didn’t know Rory personally yet, I followed Patty’s lead because I trusted her visit ability and knowledge and my gut told me this was what it was going to take.
With nothing to lose and everything to gain, we started slowly. First, Patty had Rory the ranch three times before his official lesson to orient him. His first lesson was just focusing on getting him to wear a helmet. That left us with homework. We had to have him practice wearing a helmet at home. Our neighbors were confused, but we knew that he had to persevere through what most would believe to be a menial task. Something as simple as wearing a helmet can be tough for a someone on the spectrum, but you must know when to push through the protest and how to gauge the demands. The next lesson focused on sitting on a practice horse while wearing a helmet (and by practice, I mean fake…). His next lesson involved grooming Oreo, the miniature horse, and he handled that okay, eventually. The following lesson, which Patty had groomed me for, was getting Rory on a horse. It was difficult to watch, but I had been experiencing his separation anxiety fits since he was 6 months old. The hard part for me was learning to trust someone new to handle him, especially with all the new variables in our life. Bonnie was the first horse he ever rode at the Ranch. Just in the arena, Bonnie began to move with him and his crying fits lessened each time. To this day, Rory’s separation anxiety is an ongoing concern, but it has been significantly cut down after 2 years of an aggressive and strategic combination of therapies. Truthfully, I attribute the decrease in separation on anxiety to his equine therapy and his behavioral therapy (also known as ABA). At one point both therapies were happening simultaneously at the ranch. Rory has had and still does have bursts of language during or after his lessons. In this two-year-long journey, we have had to increase demands, expect more and request more of Rory, but we also sometimes have to lower the requests. It requires constant managing, but it’s a joint effort and a collaboration. Regardless of any gains we see in language or behavior, what speaks louder than words is Rory’s connection to the horses themselves. His confidence when he is around the horses, the instructors, and the volunteers, and even how he relates to myself or my husband at the ranch or away from it indicates there is magic at work.
McKenna, Rory’s 3-year-old little sister, began riding at HHR this year to support Rory. Along with being his best friend, she is his biggest cheerleader and supporter in all of his therapies, at home and away from home. There was also no denying her own personal craving to ride. Her horse obsession is real. It’s rare to be able to have your kids in the same activities when one child has special needs and the other does not. At first, we had guarded optimism about how a group riding lesson with both kids would go. Happy to say that we and everyone at HHR were right to be optimistic. With McKenna, they are grooming a future volunteer + therapist!
Rory is partially verbal now and continues to make gains on all other platforms. The benefits from the services we receive from the Ranch are beyond what we could have ever imagined. And awed by Rory’s gains, I have begun riding as well! Being Rory’s mom, I have an acute knowledge of where this makes a difference for him. It can be hard to measure the benefits on paper, but therapeutic riding fills in the gaps where other therapy can’t fit. It provides so many unspoken skills and there is no denying the amount of confidence he now has because of riding. No matter what Rory will endure in his lifetime, whether he is fully independent or not, he will always have the confidence to direct and be with a thousand-pound creature. This talent will always be a resource of peace, healing and support for Rory, forever. Every super hero needs that!