They looked an unlikely match. Drew is an 8-year-old autistic boy, tightly bound behind piercing gray eyes. Rocky is a 23-year-old chestnut; a castoff, twitching impatiently in the paddock.
Drew bobs stiffly atop his mount as they walk beside the scrub in the shadow of Loop 101. Then their guide gives a signal.
"Watch this," says Drew’s mother, Debbie Williams of Mesa.
Rocky breaks into a vigorous trot, and the rigid little boy slips into the horse’s energy. His shoulders fall loose. His legs relax. As Drew moves smoothly along with the animal’s stride, he beams with barely contained joy.
Horses have long been the engines of the West, the staple of farmers, ranchers and millionaires. But two East Valley programs have recast horses as therapists — treating those whose needs are unreachable by words.
HUNKAPI HORSEBACK THERAPY
"Drew’s been coming here for about three years," Williams says as her son weaves Rocky between barrels at Arizona State University’s Hunkapi Riding Program. "In the beginning, he didn’t like waiting around. He didn’t like anything different. Now, he’s more patient. He follows direction. He’s surprised even me with what he can do."
Hunkapi (a Lakota word meaning "I am related to everyone") began eight years ago as a project with ASU’s Alternative Intervention Research Clinic. "They were trying to find if horseback riding helped in treating attention deficit disorder," said director Terra Schaad. Today Hunkapi offers therapeutic riding to 300 to 350 students weekly.
"We treat autism, cerebral palsy and (obsessive-compulsive disorder)," said Schaad, "as well as schizophrenia, attention deficit disorders and atrisk youth."
Riding offers a positive incentive — but the benefits go deeper than recreation. "Horses adapt to the needs of each child. They mirror what’s inside the kids. We get a lot of kids with self-esteem and trust issues, who approach horses fearfully. A horse that senses fear will just walk away. As the child addresses those fears, the horse begins to respond."
Over time, a bond develops.
"We treat kids from troubled homes," Schaad said. "When they can pick up their horse’s hoof, we tell them: ‘A horse’s only escape is with his hooves. Do you see how much he trusts you?’ You can imagine how much that means to someone who has never had unconditional love or trust."
Horses offer a relationship of shared experiences, no judgments or speech required. Although, frequently, words just spring up naturally.
"Yee-haw!" Chad Dunphy, a 19-year-old Mesan with Down syndrome, calls out to fellow riders.
"Yee-haw!" replies William Tait, a 24-year-old Mesan with cerebral palsy who has a sublime grin. Perched atop horses and flanked by sidewalkers, Chad, William and two others move along the track at Therapy Zone in east Mesa.
A nonprofit treatment center now in its second year, Therapy Zone holds more than 170 sessions per week. Programs include physical therapy, aquatic and music therapy — and horses, which play an important role. Today’s riders shoot baskets from horseback and perform a series of stretches as director Gregg Goodman watches.
"Watch William once he gets off," Goodman said. "Compare it to when he first got here. You’ll see he’s looser, with a much better range of motion." The horses offer physically challenged riders a chance to improve their dexterity. "A horse’s gait mimics the natural gait of humans," he explained. "On horseback, the disabled can work on their balance and use the muscle groups that you and I use automatically when we walk."
Therapy Zone offers eight-week courses in hippotherapy (horses as a therapeutic tool) as well as classes that tap the recreational benefits of riding. Like Hunkapi, Therapy Zone uses donated horses that meet stringent standards.
"They have to be bulletproof," Goodman said. "We like older horses because they’re patient and don’t scare easily."
Most therapy horses are 15 years or older, with their own stories. Klyde was a trail horse who developed asthma and could no longer do long rides. Cowboy, found malnourished and unable to walk, showed an affinity for children that gave him a second life.
"The kids and the horses really kind of help each other," Goodman agrees, as his riders disembark. "And it works out pretty well."