Skip to comments.Tall in the saddle. Disability is no barrier for determined young cowboy. (Tissue Alert!)
Posted on 01/14/2004 10:32:40 AM PST by jtminton
FORT WORTH - His quilt is covered with pictures of ponies.
On his bedroom floor is a miniature ranch with a plywood barn and a corral full of toy horses.
"That's Cowboy," he said, pointing to one.
"That's Poncho. That's Patches."
The boy knows each horse by name.
Austin Menzmer's imagination is so active that one animal in his herd, Buster the Wonder Horse, is the quick-thinking hero in a series of adventure stories that the 10-year-old and his grandpa write together.
Austin types the short stories into a computer with one hand.
But sometimes reality is even better than make-believe.
The boy from Keene experienced a wondrous treat Tuesday when he mounted a docile old ranch horse named Red, put his cowboy boots into the stirrups, and walked and trotted the animal around John Justin Arena at his first horse show, the Chisholm Challenge.
The two-day event, which involves 107 area riders who have mental or physical disabilities, is hosted by the Fort Worth Stock Show. The show begins its 23-day run Saturday.
"It's an outstanding, well-organized program," said Bob Watt Jr., Stock Show president. "I'm delighted it's going to be an ongoing event."
Austin suffered a stroke three months after conception.
After his birth, almost two months premature, he spent three weeks in intensive care, his heart stopping and starting, stopping and starting, while his anxious parents stood over him, urging the tiny form to breathe.
When he finally got to go home, he weighed less than 5 pounds.
The Menzmers' only child has cerebral palsy.
But there he was, back straight, tall in the saddle, competing, and performing the one form of therapy that he smilingly calls "just plain fun."
"He's so excited," said Susan Menzmer, his mother.
She and her husband, Mitch, sat in the arena stands, proud and a little nervous. At the couple's feet lay a golden retriever, Lauren, their son's service dog and his best friend.
"He's like my cane," Austin explained. "But you can't pet a cane."
From their seats, the couple took snapshots and video of the blond, blue-eyed rider, a bright, articulate home-schooled child who has undergone physical and occupational therapy since he began reaching for objects with only his left hand as a 1-year-old.
Today, he wears a brace on his right hand and right leg.
His walk hobbled, Austin will never play Little League baseball. He can't lead a fast-break on the basketball court. When other children run races, he watches.
But Austin can ride.
His instructor, his parents and everyone else who knows him agree that the joy, self-confidence and improved balance he has developed over the past two years are priceless.
"I go back and look at old video and it's like, wow," his mother said. "He's really progressed."
Eight area therapy centers sent riders to the competition, including Austin's center, Wings of Hope, which is on 25 wooded acres south of Burleson, near Eagan. Other area centers include All Star Equestrian, Equest, Riding Unlimited, Right Track, Rocky Top, Spirit Horse and Stable Strides. Each center is certified by the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association.
Margaret Dickens, executive director of Wings of Hope, said anyone who doesn't believe in miracles will reconsider after witnessing the therapeutic value of horseback riding therapy.
"It's helped [strengthen] my right hand," said Kate Atwood, 10.
Like her friend Austin's, the girl's cerebral palsy affects the right side of her body.
Ben Schwalls arrived at Wings of Hope in a wheelchair.
With the left hemisphere of his brain removed, the right side of his body was limp. After riding horses for a year, Dickens said, Ben began to walk.
"We've had children with autism," Dickens said. "The first word they have spoken is their horse's name."
A horse's four-beat rhythm simulates walking. On horseback, a rider's pelvis moves naturally, and the hips and brain communicate. Over time, the brain thinks, "OK, now I've got this."
Dickens said that when Wings of Hope opened in 1996, many doctors told patients that equitherapy might be enjoyable, but probably wouldn't help.
"Now they're sending us people," she said.
When Austin was 3, a doctor in California, where the Menzmers lived, urged his parents to enroll him in riding therapy. Susan Menzmer couldn't find a facility in the area.
Three years ago, the family moved to Keene.
A pediatric neurologist at Cook Children's Hospital asked Austin's mother, "Have you thought about horseback riding?"
"Where?" she asked.
Menzmer learned, to her surprise, that the Wings of Hope facility is only a seven-minute drive from their home.
Fear of injury discouraged Austin from participating in physical activities. But after sitting on a horse, he told his mother that he wanted to do it again. Now, he rides for an hour every Thursday morning.
A contestant number pinned to his back, Austin took the old horse around half of the arena, left hand holding the reins, white safety helmet gleaming beneath the rafter lights.
He wore a blue denim shirt. A bolo tie. His western belt. He had laid out the outfit at home the day before.
His event was western equitation, or horsemanship, and after the judging was complete, he heard his name announced over the arena speakers.
"Second place, Austin Menzmer."
As his horse stood still as a photograph, an official presented the smiling rider with a golden trophy and a big red ribbon.
It was Austin's first competition of any kind.
His mother, near tears, said, "He's never had a chance to win something -- until now."
Remember Balaam's Donkey?
Yes, there are tons of accounts of kids being helped by "horse therapy" so to speak. To disabled kids, autistic kids, abused kids, horse therapy provides wonderful benefits.
I've read many stories about it being tried when everything else fails , and the resulting breakthroughs and miracles are numerous and astonishing .
It's my dream to start a program like this (in an area that doesn't have one) or get involved with an existing program. Great article!
Then they sent him to a place that had horses, and learning to take care of them, as as part of the environment. A miracle occurred there. He started talking- at first , just to the horse he was caring for , but then, he started responding to people too, and they were able to start regular therapy with him. He's doing much better today as a result.
Thank you again for these stories.