On the backs of angels: Horses, farm animals help open worlds to kids with emotional disabilities | TheFencePost.com

On the backs of angels: Horses, farm animals help open worlds to kids with emotional disabilities

Dan England | For the Greeley Tribune
Deb Michael lets visiting families and their children paint her horse, Chamois, as one of many activities at HorseBuds Therapeutic Riding Center outside of Greeley.
DUSTIN JONES/For The Tribune |

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Horse Buds Therapy Riding Center is located just outside of Greeley. The riding center is also looking for volunteers. If you want more information, go to http://www.horsebudstrc.org or call (970) 396-4181.

The world isn’t always kind to someone like Fynn. Fynn is 7, and 7 is a pretty tough age for any kid, let alone someone like him. There are rules and expectations about order and structure — signs, signs, everywhere there are signs — even when the world itself seems unruly, even downright chaotic.

Fynn has autism. He’s high functioning, but his parents, Rico and Beth Lighthouse of Fort Collins, Colo., still need to be on guard all the time. Because of who he is, it’s hard, if not impossible at times, for him to be himself.

The Lighthouses bring him to HorseBuds Therapeutic Riding Center outside of Greeley. You might think they do it for the horses that smile on command and the goats and pigs, and barn cats that act like lap cats because they love to be loved. They do, but they also do it for the most wonderful reason of all, if you are Fynn and the two people who have to keep him in line with society.

“It provides a place where he can be himself,” Rico said, “and not be told you can’t do this or act this way or do those things. Instead, we ask him one thing: What would you like to do?”

Would you like to find dinosaurs? Deb Michael, the executive director and founder of the HorseBuds Therapeutic Riding Center, had a worker bury some on her 80-acre place. Would you like to ride a horse? Michael’s got plenty of those, maybe even more than she wanted, because even though she says, over and over, she’s not in the rescue business, she saved a few from slaughter. On a windy, cold day in January, Michael had a plan for Fynn, but she’s also willing to trash that plan.

“It’s a place,” Rico said, “where Fynn can interact with people on his own terms. Out there, he has space and that sort of thing.”

The center isn’t just a place where kids ride horses and pet cats; Michael, in fact, resents that perception. Michael runs four programs targeted to specific groups. When she decided in 2011 she wanted to work with special needs families after volunteering for them for years, she worked hard to get certified and get her nonprofit status at the end of 2013, just a few months after she began seeing clients.

Two of the programs are certified by the Professional Association of Horsemanship International and are riding programs designed for those with physical and emotional disabilities. Riding helps with balance, muscle tone and increased strength, and working with horses helps those with behavioral and anxiety problems stemming from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and other issues.

Two of them come from the Horse Boy Method, which are targeted for children living with autism such as Fynn or those with neurodevelopmental disorders that affect emotion, learning ability and memory. Interacting with the animals seems to open their world, Michael said, and she enjoys including the family. She’s put parents on the horses many times.

Michael has many stories of how her animals helped unlock the gates in their minds, but she loves to tell one about a client who said something on his own, rather than just copying speech, for the first time on the farm, graduated to bottle feeding a goat and now talks to his father after 22 years of silence.

“We let them interact with the animals most of all,” Michael said. “We might get a hug, too, but that could take a year or more.”

Michael’s owned her place for 18 years, and she brought many of her animals into the program.

They were well-trained and liked people, so all she had to do was teach them a few tricks and ease them into the games and the outfits and costumes a few of the kids wear.

“I really didn’t know what to do with them anyway,” Michael said, “so it’s worked out really well.”

Michael’s clients are families and kids, but she is starting a veterans’ program. She wants to expand and hire some staff members — now she leans on volunteers and her own endless energy.

“My vision for this is to have a real center that runs full-time,” Michael said. “It’s going slowly but surely.”

Last Monday, Fynn and the Lighthouses came back for another visit. Though he seems different — he is different — he may want what most of us want, Rico said.

“It gives him a place to be accepted,” Rico said.

The horses at the HorseBuds Therapeutic Riding Center don’t buck, don’t snort and don’t startle. Most of all, they don’t judge. ❖