Imagine for a difficult moment that your young son, who is autistic, does not talk. His silence is so absolute that you begin to think he cannot talk, that this is a matter of inability, not choice.
Then a nice young woman asks you to hide behind a tree while your son is hoisted onto a horse for his weekly therapeutic riding session, and you do, because reality is already unusual enough, so why not?
Standing behind that tree, you hear your boy say to the horse, "Walk." Just like that, and more than once, and the horse does.
"The mom shrieked so loud she nearly spooked the horse," says Michelle Newman, who for the past eleven years has been a full-time instructor with Ahead With Horses, a Los Angeles-based riding program for children with multiple or severe disabilities - and in recent years, a growing percentage of children with autism.
Every Thursday, Michelle loads two horses into a trailer, makes the hour-long drive from Sun Valley to Will Rogers state park on the west side of Los Angeles, works with some of the almost 200 children who ride with Ahead With Horses, loads the horses back in the trailer and heads home, by which time it's rush hour, and the commute takes as much as two-and-a-half hours. Every other Tuesday she makes the same drive to a nearby canyon, and five days a week, riders come to the Sun Valley facility.
Progress is slow, and accomplishments, small, and yet Michelle is the latest in a string of paid and volunteer staff who have kept the program alive since its founder and current director, Liz Helms, created it forty-one years ago. Michelle has definite ideas on why a horse and a child with autism are such good partners. "First, it's fun," she says, "so it doesn't feel to the child like other kinds of therapy. Second, a lot of these children have trouble connecting with people, but it's easier to connect with an animal. And third, there are often attention issues - but you pay attention or you're off the horse."
Word has gotten out about these people who good-naturedly endure weekly traffic jams because a silent boy might speak, or who cogitate on just the right mix of routine and change - the same horse but a new exercise, a new horse but the same drill - to help an autistic child learn to better tolerate transitions. Hundreds of families sit on wait-lists for as long as two years, hoping that a rider will move on to other activities and vacate a slot, wishing that the program had the resources to expand.
"We take children twelve and under," says Michelle, "but once they're in the program we don't ever kick them out. Ever."
Like everyone else, Ahead With Horses is quaking with apprehension about funding cuts that could shrink their shoestring operation even further: Funding from the city of Los Angeles may dry up around Labor Day, and small donations have gotten even smaller; the program also depends for survival on its own annual fundraiser and on William Shatner's annual Hollywood Charity Horse Show each April, but if the cuts are too deep they will have to scale back.
They need all the help they can get. I'm in the odd position of having a horse in the family, and in the common position of wanting to help where I can, so I offered his services as a therapy horse, and he made his debut last week. A volunteer called to tell me about the big smile on the face of the four-year-old boy, his legs too short to curve around the horse's belly, as he rode circles in the ring, a spotter at his side, an instructor leading the horse on a rope.
If you share the urge for service but not the horse, this is still an easy one: Visit www.aheadwithhorses.org, but don't use the web email because it rarely works. Call 818 767-6373, but don't expect an answer because there's no money for a receptionist. Leave a message. They'll call you back when they're done working, and you can send a donation, however small, or volunteer, or ask about similar groups in other parts of the country.