Therapeutic horseback riding helps autistic teen achieve goals


Sean Simpson, 14, rides Stewart at Stirrups & Strides on Saturday, Jan. 12, in Citra.

Lee Ferinden/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Monday, January 21, 2013 at 5:08 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 21, 2013 at 5:08 p.m.

CITRA - When Sean Simpson first started horseback riding at Stirrups ‘n Strides Therapeutic Riding Center nearly six years ago, he was a very naughty 9-year-old.

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Sean Simpson, 14, rides Stewart at Stirrups & Strides on Saturday, Jan. 12, in Citra.

Lee Ferinden/The Gainesville Sun

According to his mother, Brenda Simpson, Sean would speak harshly, pinch, kick and even spit toward the people around him, which included a leader at the front of his horse, two side-walkers and a riding instructor.

“Sean has autism. And, I think a lot of it was that he was afraid,” Brenda Simpson said, noting that although he is now 15, Sean's behavior is about equivalent to a third-grader's.

“At first, Sean didn't do so well,” said his father, Mark Simpson. “He had an attitude problem. He was uncooperative. But both of his brothers did soccer, baseball and other things. Sean had nothing.”

And so, at the recommendation of Stirrups ‘n Strides director Betty Gray, whose other students include those who also have autism or who have Down syndrome, cerebral palsy or have suffered brain injuries, Mark and Brenda continued to take Sean to his riding lesson every Saturday.

Before long, Sean began looking forward to Saturdays, often talking about “his” horse throughout the week, Mark Simpson said. And, because he and his wife used Sean's lessons as a reward for good behavior, Sean's behavior at home and school began to improve.

Sean attends New Horizon Academy for Exceptional Students, a local private school for children with autism. He has a twin brother, Ian, who volunteers along with their father at the not-for-profit riding center, and they have a younger brother, Ryan, 13.

“This has been a whole journey for him,” said Gray, noting that Sean has become “quite a polite young man. Oh, now it's ‘yes ma'am,' and ‘no ma'am' and ‘excuse me.' He's really come a long way.”

As his temperament improved, Sean didn't require as many volunteers to accompany him for safety while riding, Brenda Simpson said. Eventually, the day arrived when he could go “off lead,” which meant he could ride independently. That was about a year and a half ago.

“He was so proud of himself. It was such an achievement. At that point, he just totally embraced it,” she said.

As Gray does with all her students who can ride independently, she encouraged Sean to participate in horse shows and competitions.

“The kids love the shows. They love getting the ribbons,” she said.

In November, after qualifying at two previous events, Sean competed in the United Professional Horsemen's Association Exceptional Challenge Cup Finals, a prestigious national championship held in Kansas City, Mo.

Simply having the opportunity to attend was an achievement, Brenda Simpson said.

And, after competing against 19 other non-physically disabled riders from all around the country - many of them much older and more experienced, noted Mark Simpson - Sean ended up bringing home the Grand Championship.

“I think it sunk in later for him, a little bit” said Gray, explaining that many people with autism don't display their emotions well. “But my favorite thing was watching Brenda in the stands. I looked up there and the tears were coming down - it just made the whole trip worthwhile.”

“In the beginning, I really didn't think he could do it, especially posting,” Brenda Simpson said. “I didn't think he could understand it.”

In English riding, she explained, posting is the bouncing up and down motion that makes the ride look smooth. In the finals, Sean had to walk and trot his horse, post and travel across the arena in a serpentine motion.

Brenda also was surprised at her son's good behavior in Kansas City, saying the family has not been able to take many trips in the past for fear of his having an outburst.

“He actually has become a really good rider,” Mark Simpson said as he proudly watched his son during a recent Saturday lesson. “He just looks good in the saddle. He's got great posture and he's got just a real good countenance with the horse. And that's partly because of Stewart. Stewart's a good show horse. They were meant for each other.”

After the lesson, Sean dismounted and eagerly rewarded Stewart with a treat.

Although Sean did not verbalize his thoughts about winning the grand championship, he clearly was proud to show off his championship plaque and other ribbons and awards he has won.

“We're all so proud of Sean,” Gray said. “We definitely consider him one of our big miracles here. But this is what we're here for -- he did something we never expected he could do.”

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