PIPE CREEK -- Lisa Barrett doesn’t stop smiling when she’s spending time with Bo, a dark and handsome thoroughbred.
It’s because riding on top of Bo is nothing like riding in her wheelchair. Atop of Bo, she gets to mingle with friends. Atop of Bo, she’s the one holding the reigns.
Atop of Bo, she’s in control.
Lisa, 36, has cerebral palsy. She doesn’t control her body well, doesn’t speak well and relies mostly on other people to push her around in a wheelchair.
But once a week, she is pushed up a wooden ramp at the Triple H Equitherapy Center in Pipe Creek. Suddenly, all of that changes.
Lisa’s mom, Cherry Barrett, and a few volunteers help swing Lisa onto the tall horse. Her unsteady riding boots find the stirrups as she grips the reins in her left hand and hooks her pinky through Bo’s mane.
She wears a snap-button shirt, a riding helmet and blue jeans. Ready to ride, Lisa is the happiest cowgirl in the world.
“It’s really helped her balance,” Cherry said. “She loves coming out here to ride with everybody. She gets to mingle with them and she just really enjoys coming out.”
That’s why she’s been doing it for the last 12 years.
Lisa is the oldest rider in her class of four. Most riders in the Riding to Independence program are between 5 and 16 years old.
All of them have some sort of physical or mental disability. Thirty percent are autistic while the others have Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis and other disabilities.
On top of the horses, however, their daily struggles fade as they concentrate on the half-ton animal beneath them.
On a recent Monday afternoon, the riders walked their horses down a rocky path to a nearby creek -- usually bone dry if not for a recent rainfall.
“Good, Celeste,” said Kyla Nelson, the group’s instructor. “I like how you’re keeping him in line and you’re slowing him down yourself.”
On the trail
Celeste Guidry took the compliment with a smile and a gleeful laugh. She was riding her favorite horse, Laz, whom she strokes with her free hand at every opportunity. After the ride, she likes to run a brush over his chestnut coat, and she sometimes feeds him an apple from her hand.
But most impressive of all, Celeste’s mother explained, is that Celeste is also interacting with the other riders, the volunteers and the instructors.
“It’s really very impressive when you think about it,” Rebecca Guidry said. “Because that’s one of the major obstacles for autistic children… social interaction. And her ability to care for him and groom him, she takes great pride in.”
When the riders reach the creek, Nelson asks the volunteers if they would mind getting a little wet. Without response, the volunteers kick off their boots and hike up their jeans.
Each rider has at least one volunteer to help lead the horses. Some riders, like Lisa, have another volunteer to walk beside the horse in case the rider loses balance. But for the most part, the riders are in control.
They release the reins to allow the horses a drink of cool water. They lean forward when walking uphill and lean back when walking down. They pull on the reins and say “whoa” to make the horse stop.
Riding for independence
The riders never go too far and never break into a trot. But during the relaxed ride, they learn to trust and communicate, and they learn to be independent -- life skills that don’t always come easy. The ride also helps with physical disabilities, especially for riders like Lisa, who has trouble sitting up straight.
“The heat from the horse and then the movement will help relax their legs and help stretch them out. That way they have some type of relief for a little bit,” Nelson explained. “And the more they do it, the stronger their legs get (and) the stronger their core muscles get.”
Nelson has worked at Triple H for five years. Sometimes her dogs Duke and Major come to work with her, too. When she’s not leading a ride, she cares for several retired horses at her home across the creek from the ranch.
Most of the horses at Triple H are older horses who aren’t up for competitive activities, like Poker, an ex-jumper with a leg problem. But he’s still able to walk. He’s a good horse with a mild temperament -- an energy that rubs off on the riders.
There are only six full-time workers and six part-time workers who manage nearly 75 riders a week using 18 horses on 160 acres of trails. Thankfully, Triple H has about 65 volunteers each week to help out with the riders.
At Triple H, it’s all about helping and healing.
“We always teach our kids to say ‘walk on’ and ‘whoa,’” Nelson said. “And it helps for the kids that don’t talk to realize that their voice makes this powerful animal move.”
Even a task as basic as talking can be a huge challenge for some of the riders who come to the Triple H Ranch. But there’s something inspiring about being on top of such a large and gentle creature. It’s almost magical.
Nelson recalled a 5-year-old autistic boy who had never uttered a word before coming to the ranch. His parents, teachers, doctors and therapists had never even heard his voice.
It took a horse.
“Believe it or not, he said a sentence,” Nelson said. “He looked at his mom and said, ‘Mommy, I want to take a horse home.’”
It gave the boy’s mom the joy of hearing her child’s voice for the first time. And to the boy – like so many other riders – the ranch gave something much more, Nelson said.
“It gives them freedom.”
Call (830) 510-9515 or visit http://www.triplehequitherapy.org for more information on Triple H Equitherapy. The ranch also offers programs for at-risk youth and wounded warriors. Donations are always welcome. See how your money will be spent by visiting the Triple H donations page.