“I vividly remember placing Ephraim on the Saddle Up! waitlist in May 2015 at the encouragement of numerous acquaintances who were the parents of older children with special needs. He was just under 2 years old at the time. Just a few months earlier, we had received the results of his Whole Exome Sequencing (WES), an extensive genetic test that led to the identification of two of his three rare genetic disorders and helped to explain the etiology of his widespread medical and developmental challenges. That information was all the things that big diagnoses are: overwhelming, unsettling, inviting a host of questions around what his future might look like—and, frankly, whether there would be a future for him. 

Those strings of letters spelled out a trifecta of rare diseases—there was no curative action to take, no medication to initiate or surgical procedure to undergo that would alleviate Ephraim’s health struggles and allow him a shot at a “normal” childhood, whatever that means. As a parent, you want to do something, ANYTHING, for your child as you watch them struggle with debilitating medical symptoms and undergo endless therapy appointments and early intervention sessions aimed at teaching them to master skills that come naturally to typically developing infants and children. Enter the Saddle Up waitlist. 

As soon as friends found out that our child had diagnosed special needs (including a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder, which came just a month after joining the waitlist), they urged us to get on the waitlist for Saddle Up! as soon as possible, because it was something we could DO for our boy, an action we could take in support of ensuring more favorable long-term outcomes for him. My husband and I had zero knowledge about horses (my childhood fears of their large teeth kept me far from barns for many years) but we had already seen that Ephraim loved animals and being outdoors, so that was enough for us. We had heard miracle stories of the good Saddle Up! had done for other children in our community, and we wanted our son to have a chance to experience a transformation like theirs.

Ephraim came off the waitlist in December 2017, at 4.5 years old, and began participating in lessons at Saddle Up! in January 2018. He started in 30-minute individual lessons because of concerns regarding his stamina and medical complexity but has since transitioned to hour-long small group lessons riding alongside a couple of peers close in age to him. From his very first lesson, I was struck by the unbridled joy Ephraim displayed while on horseback. The smiles that I had to work tirelessly for in photos came so spontaneously and often on the horse that I found myself snapping away. He developed a relationship with “his” pony, Dumpling, and looked so forward to seeing him each week. 

I’ll never forget having to break the news to him last fall that Dumpling was going to be retiring and leaving Saddle Up! due to his age. Ephraim cried big crocodile tears and insisted that we purchase a going away gift for him. Sad as he was, watching him respond to an event in such an emotionally appropriate manner represented a major milestone for a child with autism who historically didn’t display the expected emotional valence when someone around him was sad. Fostering an emotional connection came much more naturally to Ephraim with his horse than it did with people, where difficulties with reading facial expressions and interpreting social cues often left him feeling befuddled and disengaged. 

[WATCH MORE: Middle Tennesee’s oldest and largest therapeutic riding program.]

[WATCH MORE: Amrita had a tough start to life. Then she found a horse named Copper and everything changed.]

In addition to his relational bond with the horse, I remember being shocked when his instructor, Sutter, gushed to me after his second or third lesson about how quickly he was picking up the skills she was teaching and how naturally the activity seemed to come to him. I remember tearing up and telling her that no one had EVER commented on my child being a quick learner or on something coming easily to him—that just wasn’t the way things worked for us. Whether it was feeding, speech, gross motor milestones, fine motor skills, social, emotional, or self-help skills, Ephraim had had to fight for every ability he’d gained along the way. He was the child who needed to be shown something step by step over and over and over and then one more time before he’d begin to catch on. To see the acquisition of a skill come more effortlessly for him was a balm to my momma heart after watching him have to struggle so tirelessly and persevere beyond belief to achieve mastery of seemingly “simple” things. I could see from very early on in his time at Saddle Up! that we had found an activity that would be one of his “things,” something he was GOOD at, that came more easily to him, and that he genuinely enjoyed. 

He looks so forward to his lesson each week and talks incessantly at home about curry combs and rainbow reins and all manner of horse accouterments using vocabulary that is totally foreign to my unfamiliar ears. Because Ephraim has very limited physical stamina and suffers from gait ataxia, hypotonia, muscle fatigue, and, as a result, frequent falls and lack of agility, he’s never been able to participate in traditional team sports for children his age like t-ball or soccer. He requires the use of his power wheelchair just to navigate the hallways of his school building. Saddle Up! has given him an invaluable outlet for engaging in an athletic activity that helps to build his core strength, balance, endurance, and stamina but is safe for and accessible to him in spite of his physical disabilities. In addition, the lack of a “competitive” component to the regular practice of riding lessons has been a welcome benefit, as he’s not left feeling like the child on the baseball team who has never scored a run or gotten a hit, a phenomenon that can take a toll on the self-esteem of a sensitive kiddo like E, who also contends with a significant anxiety disorder and ADHD.

There are so many benefits stemming from Ephraim’s participation in Saddle Up!. Beyond the more obvious physical ones and the bond he’s forged with horses, his time in the saddle also helps him to hone cognitive abilities and short-term memory skills by practicing following multi-step directions given to a group, recalling the steps of a dressage process, executing maneuvers in the requested order, remembering the correct order of use of grooming and tacking supplies and techniques, and more. He’s gaining practice in executing successful social interactions and multi-part conversational exchanges with same-aged peers, something that has always proven difficult for him. The bonds he’s forged with his instructor, Sutter, as well as his leaders and side walkers are but another blessing offered to our family by Saddle Up!. 

Most of all, we’re thankful that our son has found a niche within an activity in which he can continue participating across the lifespan. We know that the exercise, time spent outdoors, and relationships formed with horses and other people will positively impact his physical, emotional, and social health and well-being long-term. In fact, in recent months, multiple friends have mentioned to us that our next move should be to a home with more land where Ephraim could one day have a horse of his own—and we can’t disagree. In ten years, we definitely see ourselves with some acreage and an equine family member, which gives me a good laugh on the heels of my years convinced that horses would devour me with their frighteningly large teeth. It’s funny how quickly you’ll change your outlook when your child discovers something he loves!” —Mackenzie Lober, Ephraim’s mother

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