My husband and I were foster parents for eight amazing kiddos before we ultimately adopted two beautiful boys. We met our sons at Austin’s House in June of 2017. Our first visit was only an hour long and we left on cloud 9… the oldest called my husband “daddy” within 11 mins of meeting and pointed to every airplane that flew overhead … daddy’s a pilot so smitten is not a strong enough word. I was “daddy’s friend” for the next three months, but who’s counting. The next day, we spent another couple hours with our sons … it felt good. I visited the next couple days without my husband … that good quiet feeling became a distant memory as our son’s big behaviors came flooding out. Both kiddos would rock against walls and scream every 15 mins it seemed. I was clearly sinking with every effort getting me nowhere. I’m pretty sure I blacked out with staff coming to my rescue more than once. I remember crying the whole way home wondering if I would be strong enough for these kiddos. Even after helping eight other kiddos, this challenge was the beginning of my grey hair. I finally put my big pants on and began finding the help we needed.
Those first few months were surreal. Our oldest didn’t want to be touched and his little body was forever on the move. He rocked and rocked and rocked… we had special pillows surrounding his bed, he would rock for hours all day and all night until his little boney back was bruised and bleeding. Rocking was also his way of regulating himself. The drama of a broken granola bar or anything not according to his “plan” was too much to bear. Around this time NEIS scored his social-emotional skills equivalent to a 9 month old … he was 2.5. All daily activities required “co-regulating”. Mealtime was epic… sometimes the transition to the table would take over 45 mins. Toys were limited due to the anxiety they brought, and the most coveted toys would end up in the diaper. Over the course of a few weeks, our oldest son had stopped rocking at night and naps. He was finally able to rest his body and sleep; however, rocking was still his “go-to” for regulating during the day. Our little man would bite his arm until he bled, have meltdowns lasting 5 hours until he literally passed out with us just trying to keep him alive. Other times, he would completely dissociate, and we learned about fecal smearing. The trauma of washing fecal material out of the hair of a 25 lb child who was also terrified of water… soul crushing.
I started looking for therapy. Small town rural Nevada was not in my favor, but after a few epic failures, we found a great facility with Project Safe & Growing in Reno. Our family was introduced to conscious discipline methods and early childhood trauma and my standard late-night cry-fest was replaced with YouTube videos, articles, and books that began to make sense of our lives. We continued growing with this therapeutic setting for almost a year. We added occupational therapy to our list of resources and started to make solid measurable gains. Getting dressed didn’t take up to 2 hours of screaming; getting strapped into a car seat didn’t take another hour. I bought at least 20 more parenting books… crash course in self-help trauma momma. It definitely wasn’t pretty, but we were starting to get by… Meltdowns weren’t the majority of the day… we had far fewer drywall holes to spackle… and I wasn’t in a constant state of panic…
Our therapist recommended looking into equine therapy. I have had a death fear of horses since my early childhood… I remember my hands sweating at the simple suggestion. I put aside my fears and decided I would do anything to help my son. I saw Nevada Equine Assisted Therapy (NEAT) mentioned on a foster/adopt Facebook page, and we scheduled a visit. At that time, our oldest had just turned four and he did so well around the horses that he was accepted into the program. He was so small and the horses so big in comparison; sitting on the horse, his feet didn’t even extend past the saddle pad. He was a whopping 35 lbs!
I began to learn enormous amounts about horses and trauma, simply fascinating. Two months after first sitting on a horse, Ms. Ruby to be exact, our son found the safety and confidence to begin talking about his tummy mom; he had never spoken about her before. I remember walking behind him on a trail ride crying my eyes out and trying my best to hold it together. He started using his big voice with his brother and our pets at home. This created a whole new household dynamic where little brother wasn’t the boss anymore and healthy boundaries were being established. Before our oldest was enrolled in the NEAT program, our household dynamic was reversed … our oldest required approval from our youngest for everything… he would stay in bed until little brother told him he was “allowed” to get out, he wouldn’t “eat” unless little brother told him what to eat and how. Through horses, our oldest started feeling more confident to make his own choices and use his big voice. The fallout from this was epic for our youngest but it needed to happen.
Our son spent over 2.5 years growing in NEAT. He is now 7 and still asks if he can return to his horses. I remember so many days I had to walk away as Ms. Bambi helped convince little man to come out of his car seat; days so hard I could barely participate as a simple cheerleader on the sideline. Some days were so challenging we couldn’t make it to the horse, only view them from the clubhouse as we played a game. Then, there were the days my smile was so big, my face would ache all night… a hurdle overcome… a goal actually achieved. This little man, who hated dirt, who hated smells, who hated hair on his clothes and face, who couldn’t deal with socks and shoes, who had massive obsessive behaviors, who had anxiety beyond imagination … this little man became a horseman right in front of my eyes. He conquered something I couldn’t as a grown woman. No matter what kind of day it was, he always left better. When he began the program at four years old, this little boy never slept! He would maybe get an hour or two at a time… after a horse ride, he would sleep for hours and hours … his body would finally relax as well as mine. Even years later, we would leave the stables and he would remain calm! It was his only place of peace.
NEAT never gave our family “easy” … it was never “easy.” Our little man was kicked out of every sport we tried… soccer, swim, gymnastics, martial arts… he managed to stay in football simply because his parents became the coaches! He was kicked out of every school in our small town as well, ultimately leading us to homeschool for a long period of time until we were accepted into a trauma informed charter school. However, NEAT and horses have shown our little man how to find his calm and his own voice … so much so that school, while challenging, is no longer impossible. He knows he can do hard things!
Due to our experience and complete family growth with NEAT, this terrified of horses momma began riding lessons, slowly identifying and putting her own demons to rest along the way. We found a riding program for our youngest son and he began thriving … my husband and I stood in absolute shock as one day our oldest was leading our youngest around as he sat on a horse … together… our sons did something together for the first time! The magnitude was not overlooked. For the first time, they respected each other, listened to each other, all because the right horse was put in the right place… Daddy signed up for lessons the same day! It took years and I would never have believed it, but this family has become horse people to the core. We can no longer wake without the “smell” of horse before the daily grind. We now have two horses that fit our family as perfectly as our sons. I would never recommend bringing horses home to anyone… However, I will whole-heartedly recommend the NEAT program to anyone or any family seeking a little light when feeling there’s only dark. NEAT provides confidence, love, and trust when there seems to be none. They provide a place free of judgement to begin growth where you are, not where you should be. As a mom, it was a rare safe haven that gave me hope… hope to see my son succeed when doubt was so regular… and my son most certainly continues to succeed. I truly believe this program has played a role in saving my son’s life and the gratitude I feel is overwhelming.