My son Clay was born in August of 2007 at 24 weeks, 4 months premature. He experienced brain bleeds at some point just before, during, or just after birth. Because of this, his primary diagnosis is cerebral palsy; however, he has other issues related to the brain damage as well. Mobility is greatly affected, and he uses a wheelchair. Clay can walk, but it is with great assistance. He has difficulty with speech (Apraxia) and vision (cortical visual impairment) directly related to the brain damage. With the Apraxia, he has difficulty with motor planning to use his facial muscles, mouth muscles, and tongue to form words. He does have words that he frequently uses, but there are some that we may only hear once and never again. CVI has been described by verbal patients as trying to see through the holes of Swiss cheese. He adapts to his environment to try to overcome his limited vision, speech, and mobility.
We learned about Horses for Hope in 2009 from Clay’s occupational therapist. She treated another patient who had been riding there for several years and thought it might help Clay. In the fall of 2010, Clay’s preschool class went on the field trip to HFH, and he had a blast. He was quite vocal after the trip and any time we would mention the horses. I contacted Gwen to see if there were any slots available for the Spring of 2011. Fortunately, she had a few.
Clay has always ridden bareback. Initially, it was because he rode backwards. At the time, his trunk muscles were quite weak, and he was unable to sit up and support himself. He would ride with his head on the horse’s rump and push up into a seated position several times as he was riding. By the end of the spring session, he was riding much of the time sitting up. That fall, he was able to ride facing forward and sitting with the support of his sidewalkers. Eventually, we realized that rather than having walkers on both sides of the horse, Clay was much better supported if he had a rider behind him. This allows him to lean into the rider when he needs the extra support. Each lesson would result in a child that was completely limp from having used muscles in ways that were not possible in his daily life. Yet, the complete and utter joy of the experience overcame his physical tiredness.
Clay’s strength continued to improve with each new season of riding. However, in January of 2014, he had to have surgery to correct a dislocated hip. It is not unusual for children with CP to develop this. Even though his trunk was weak, his extremities were tight and his upper thigh muscles had pulled his right hip out of joint. Recovery should have been 4-6 weeks, and Clay was supposed to be able to participate in the spring session. However, he suffered numerous complications and was not able to ride. When we returned to HFH in September, he had regressed substantially because of the surgery and extended recovery. As we drove into the parking lot, he knew immediately where he was and was so excited to be back. Within two lessons, the change in his abdominal strength was amazing.
Even though Clay has two sessions each every week of physical, occupational, and speech therapies, therapeutic riding has provided a missing link in his abilities. Because he is so engaged, his verbal skills have increased. He tells us that he wants to “ide Abo”—ride Diablo. He can tell Diablo to go or walk and will also click his tongue for Diablo to go. Clay maintains fine motor control when he occasionally holds on to the reins, and also when he rubs Diablo’s nose. Clay does not walk independently, but he is walking more and more with support. Because a horse’s gait mimics walking for its rider’s hips, he knew the sensation of walking. His hips did not have to get used to this feeling, which can be a huge obstacle for those who do not walk. He is able to participate in the activities in the ring and on the trail that encourage new skills and build on older ones. In most people’s lives, these things seem quite minor; however, in Clay’s life, the ability to do these little things is a big deal. As a mother who measures successes in inchstones rather than milestones, I cannot imagine where Clay’s abilities would be had we not stumble upon Horses for Hope all those many years ago.”
Spring 2011 Fall 2013