By David Blanchette as published in the State Journel-Register
“The very first time when we took them to the round pen to introduce them to each other, you could see it in their eyes…”
Twelve-year-old Jenna Allen’s parents are amazed by what has happened with Vegas, and they are glad she wants to stay with Vegas.
“It’s like a light comes on. It’s so exciting,” said Jenna’s mother, Tanya Allen. “When we know we are going out there, Jenna talks about it all week. ‘Are we going to see Vegas? Are we going to see Vegas?’ Jenna sleeps with his picture, and the first thing when she wakes up, she says, ‘Vegas – is he waiting for me?’”
Jenna, of Athens, has autism and has difficulty socializing and communicating. Vegas is a very quick, athletic horse that was raised to work herds of cattle. The first time they saw each other this spring at Boyer Training Stables near Cantrall, TX they became instant best friends. This connection has made Jenna almost a completely different person when she is with Vegas, her mother says.
“Normally, she wouldn’t even touch an animal, she would just kind of poke with her finger,” Tanya said. “But when she got in the stall with him, there was this bond I never dreamed could happen. It’s kind of like a miracle to be honest.”
“The first time Becky Boyer showed her how to pet him, brush him and the commands, Jenna took Vegas by the reins and walked him. She won’t even walk a dog. She’s real skittish around any other kind of animal,” Tanya said. “But she was in the arena and she had him by the reins and she was running with him. And that’s just unbelievable.”
The Allens knew Tim and Becky Boyer and were familiar with their horse-training operation. After Tanya read articles about using equine, or horse, therapy with autism, she asked the Boyers if they held therapy clinics.
“They said they didn’t, but they said, ‘You know, you can bring Jenna out and we can just see how it goes,’” Tanya said.
Tim Boyer, who has been training horses for more than 40 years, knew something special happened when Jenna and Vegas first met.
“The very first time when we took them to the round pen to introduce them to each other, you could see it in their eyes. She walked right up to him, started talking to him and rubbing his nose,” Tim said. “Vegas really watches her like a hawk. When she goes fast, he goes fast, when she goes slow, he goes slow. When she struggles, he will just stop and wait for her, and really protects her. He fixes his attention to her very closely.”The new best friends even look alike now.
“Vegas has a very long tail, so we braid it when we ride him so he won’t step on his tail and pull it out. And the young lady has long hair, and it gets in her eyes when she’s riding, so we asked her a couple of weeks ago if we could braid her hair, and she said no,” Tim said. “Then she was watching Becky braid Vegas’ tail, and she told Becky, ‘Braid my hair like Vegas.'”
Becky Boyer at first wasn’t sure that Vegas would be the right horse to introduce to Jenna.
“If any horse would have been skittish, it would have been this one. This horse was trained to go into a herd of cattle, and if one moves, to go after it,” Becky said. “So any type of movement, he reacts lightning-fast. When Jenna first came, she would have these outbursts where she would throw her hands into the air and squeal. And Vegas never made a move when she did this. It’s something that I can’t explain. The connection she has with this horse is something really incredible.”
Jenna wants to take part in a horse show with Vegas, and the Boyers are getting her prepared for that. This is something else her mother finds amazing.
“Normally she would get distracted with a bunch of people, so we told her if she did a show there were going to be a lot of people,” Tanya said. “And Jenna said ‘I’d love that, I want to.’”
“You could have blown me over with a feather,” said Jenna’s father, Boyd. “There was no way in a million years I would have thought that she would have petted Vegas to start with. Now she wants to compete with him. …
“We tried medication, and trust me, that medication wouldn’t do half of what that horse has done.”
Kathy Griffin operates Central Illinois Riding Therapy in East Peoria, serving adults and children with mental, emotional and physical disabilities, including autism. She said such bonds are special, but not unique.
“We do see the immediate bond happen maybe about a quarter of the time,” Griffin said. “A lot of them are girls. The boys are a little more apprehensive than the girls are. But the girls tend to gravitate toward animals.
“Some of the girls just know immediately that this horse is their buddy, and they look forward to it every week and they come in here and they are just all smiles and they just can’t wait to get on that horse. Horses are in tune with people, and they are relaxed. They don’t get in your face, they want to be petted and loved on, but they are not pushy about it. I think that makes a child feel more comfortable.”
Griffin said children with autism can present special challenges for horse stable operators.
“They tend to be very anxious,” she said. “Most of the kids with autism here don’t make eye contact, they don’t want to speak, they have very short attention spans. A lot of them are runners, and you have to physically keep hold of them. Their mind works in very short spurts, so you have to keep them focused. … A lot of them don’t like being touched, so it’s kind of hard getting them on and off the horse when they don’t want you to touch them.”
Griffin also said children with autism usually bond with a particular animal, like Jenna has, and that can be a problem as the years go by.
“When a horse passes away, it’s very hard on some of our kids because they don’t understand why they have to ride someone else,” Griffin said. “We’ve had a few that have not been able to come back for that reason.”
‘An amazing feeling’
It’s no secret why children with autism can often form a connection with animals instead of humans, according to Corey Moore, The Autism Clinic coordinator for the Hope Institute for Children and Families in Springfield.
“When humans interact, we use quite a bit of language and direct eye contact. This is completely different than animals,” Moore said. “It makes sense that animals would be less intimidating to an individual who has social and communication difficulties because they’re not bombarding the individual with statements, questions and directions.”
“I’ve heard of several children who have benefited from equine therapy. My understanding is there aren’t any bad side effects. I think it’s amazing what can happen,” Moore said. “But I wouldn’t want a family to enroll their child in equine therapy just because they think it will change their child’s behavior. Each child is individual and will respond differently. I think having some of these extracurricular activities along with a quality intervention program is going to be what is best for children with autism.”
Jenna, who rides Vegas once a week at Boyer Training Stables, is one of the success stories.
“I had horses growing up, so I know there can be a bond. I just never knew that Jenna could bond with Vegas the way she did,” Tanya said. “Jenna has never really had anything of her own. My 10-year-old son, Ben, shows cattle at the state fair, and Jenna has never had anything that is just her own. This is something that is just hers.”
The experience with Jenna and Vegas has Becky and Tim Boyer looking into the possibility of offering equine therapy through their stable.
“Horses just seem to know when a child has a problem. The horse accepts them no matter what, and I think that is something that the child and the horse connect with,” Becky said. “A horse is a magnificent animal. They are so powerful, but yet they are so gentle, the sense of touch and the way that horse smells the child, and the way they move with the child. It’s almost like they are taking care of that child. And I think the kids sense it as well.
“It’s just an amazing feeling, and we get blessings every time we see it. We just want to share it with people.”