The Daily Tribune News - 5/11/2018
Thrilled to see her 23-year-old son, Johnathan, reach new heights, Kim Henson was delighted to watch him capture a first place ribbon at the Beyond Autism Benefit Horse Show April 21. Diagnosed with nonpervasive autistic disorder at nearly age 3, he has benefited from taking lessons from the event's presenter - Beyond Limits Therapeutic Riding - over the last four years.
"When Johnathan was 2, my mother-in-law, at the time, thought Johnathan could not hear," said Henson, a resident of White. "We went to Scottish Rite for testing, and I was told he could hear, but something else was going on. We went for more testing, and when he was almost 3, he was diagnosed with nonpervasive autistic disorder, because he was so young. We enrolled in Babies Can't Wait and he received speech. When we moved to Cartersville in 1997, the only special needs Pre-K was at Kingston Elementary. He went there until he was 6, then Hamilton Crossing, Cass Middle and Cass High. He has had private speech therapy, speech therapy through school, auditory training, horse therapy, and he loves to swim.
"As far as work, he was at [Longhorn] through the school CBI [Community Based Instruction] program for four years. He went in the mornings with other students and a parapro, and he did a great job with the prep work of the restaurant. ? Now, we have gone through the process of the day program with Woodright, and will be starting in May. Johnathan is so much smarter than people think, but he needs consistency and repetition to learn skills. He can do anything, but it takes time. That is why horse therapy has been so beneficial. It has proven to show how he can memorize patterns and follow directions."
Conducting therapeutic riding lessons at Watkins Farm in Cartersville, Beyond Limits - a member of the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International - serves special needs children and adults. Currently, the nonprofit is providing lessons to more than 30 riders, experiencing a variety of health diagnoses.
"He has been riding with BLTR since 2014," Henson said. "He rides twice a month and also volunteers at the farm once a week. He helps with feeding the horses, bathing, watering and general chores with the horses. Beyond Limits has taken him beyond limits. When he first started, he was on a beginner horse just kinda slowly riding around. As time went on, he started trotting, then cantering - for those that do not know, this is a faster trot. I couldn't even watch when he first started - scared me to death - and his trainer, Kristen Moreland, said, 'He can do it.' She has pushed him and seen potential for him to become an independent, advanced rider.
"Now, he still needs guidance, but he can memorize a pattern and perform at a level I never thought. He has participated in Special Olympics Equestrian in Gainesville, which is held in October, for the past three years. He has benefited ? greatly from the lessons - his eye contact, his listening, following directions, coordination and socialization [skills]."
She continued, "For the first time, he did cross rails in [the Beyond Autism Benefit Horse Show]. He received a first place ribbon. He was so happy and smiling. The faster the horse, the better. I wanted him to participate because this is one activity, besides the computer, that he loves. I asked him if he wanted to participate and he said, 'Yes,' and then when I asked him who he was riding he said, 'Buster.' He chose his events and his horse."
In its third year, the Beyond Autism Benefit Horse Show at Watkins Farm consisted of 31 riders, ranging in age from 7 to 64. Competing against "typical riders," Beyond Limits Executive Director Kimberly Oviedo said some of the event's participants had a wide array of neurological, physical and social conditions, including epilepsy, autism spectrum disorder, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy.
"Autism comes in many different forms. Our goal is to spread awareness of that, and the fact that even those who live in the world of autism can still be successful at many things," Oviedo said. "There is a reason it's called autism spectrum disorder. It's due to the wide variety of challenges it can come with. Some on the spectrum can live independent lives with little assistance. They may struggle with social skills or OCD [obsessive compulsive disorder]. Others may have more challenging effects dealing with speech and deeper neurological functions. But, no matter where on the spectrum you may fall, there is always room for growth and achievement.
"The goal of the Beyond Autism Benefit Horse Show is to spread awareness that those living with autism, or any disability for that matter, can still compete alongside the typical riders, and sometimes even beat them. It's amazing how the crowd reacts when they may see a nonverbal shy person rocking in their chair waiting their turn, and then watch them transform, light up and ride independently over the jumps."
Established in November 2013, Beyond Limits has expanded its reach over the years, from one horse and three riders to six horses and more than 30 participants.
"There was a need for innovation in therapy, a nonclinical setting, where participants could receive therapeutic benefits without having to visit a doctor's office," Oviedo said. "My daughter had been involved in therapeutic riding for a few years already, and I saw the great benefits she received from her experiences there. She was getting physical activity. Her coordination and balance improved. It gave her a chance to work on social skills and problem solving, as well as helped her get over some big fears.
"She fell in love with the sport, the horses, and I loved the confidence she gained in all aspects of life from it. I wanted to allow her the opportunity to continue to ride and bring the same joy she experienced from to others in the disabled community. I, my husband, brother, our good friend and instructor Kristen along with a few very close friends, all put our heads together and made this dream become a reality."
Starting its operations at Greenridge Stables, Beyond Limits has increased its offerings while at Watkins Farm.
"We have continued to grow and evolve over the years," Oviedo said. "Due to the big heart and generosity of our friend Beth Ellenburg, we started off operating out of Greenridge Stables. ? It was the perfect place to kick-start our program, surrounded by great people and a location easy to find.
"As we started to grow, our number of horses needed to increase with the number of riders we were serving, so we found our new home with Watkins Farm in Cartersville. The facility fit our needs for an expanded herd, and the indoor arena enabled us to continue serving even in inclement weather. We started off with one horse and three riders for our first week of business at Greenridge. We now use six horses in our program, have over 30 riders and have recently hired an additional instructor as well. We offer therapeutic riding lessons, summer camps, competitive opportunities and fill a 15-rider Special Olympic team every year."
For Oviedo, seeing their riders develop continues to be a heartwarming experience.
"My heart just melts watching our riders as they evolve in our program," Oviedo said. "There are so many positive changes that it's hard to believe it's real and to me that is what this is all about and that is my why - why I volunteer countless hours to keep this program alive. We are a unique nonprofit in that other than our therapeutic riding instructors, we are [run] purely by volunteers, including myself as the executive director.
"Seeing the smiles on the faces at Special Olympics when a gold medal is won, watching a blue ribbon being handed to a rider at our Beyond Autism Benefit [Horse] Show, seeing the looks on the parents' faces when they just light up as their child conquers a huge fear, or starts walking, or hears their nonverbal child speak for the first time while on the back of a horse - that is what this is all about. There isn't one moment that stands out. It's all of the standout moments that [makes] this the best job one could ever ask for."
While Johnathan is fond of "going fast" on his horse during his Beyond Limits lessons, he enjoyed "riding Buster" and "getting ribbons" during the Beyond Autism Benefit Horse Show.
Echoing Oviedo's comments, Henson also shared there are numerous memories that stand out regarding her son's riding lessons.
"I have had many favorite moments involving therapy, I guess anytime he tries something new or is able to remember a five-[to]-seven minute dressage pattern. Anytime he smiles when he did something well, I know he is enjoying himself. Johnathan can communicate and talks, but not necessarily on a conversation level as you or I would, but he will say, 'No,' if it is not something he wants to do or eat. He never says no to [riding a horse].
"Being a special education teacher myself, autistic individuals are on all levels of the spectrum and what works for one child may not work for another. Find what they like - even if they are nonverbal, there is something in there. Autistic individuals need to be given a chance to work or participate in a sport. They all really shine in some way. They just need to be connected to in another way."
In addition to calling 770-917-5737, more information can be obtained about Beyond Limits and its summer camps by visiting www.beyondlimitsriding.org.