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Sun, Oct. 20

Horse therapy program helps autistic Chino boy

Five-year-old Kai Clack has trouble focusing on one thing at a time.

Being around horses helps him do that better.

Kai was born with autism, which affects his ability to relate to the world around him, and only in the last year has the Chino Valley boy learned to speak better.

A few months ago, his mother Andrea Hernandez learned of the Horses with HEART therapy program in Dewey, led by Director Trudy Chapman.

Chapman uses gentle horses to help children and adults with various disabilities find healing through their interaction with the animals.

"Just having the confidence to get on the horse's back builds self-esteem and helps them try other things in their lives," Chapman said of horse therapy.

Chapman also works with the disabled who want to enter equestrian events in the annual Special Olympics in showmanship, Western riding and trail ride.

At the Prescott Frontier Days Rodeo Friday night, six of Chapman's horses and 20 program volunteers, along with another 40 Frontier Days volunteers and rodeo queens, gave about 30 disabled kids the same special treatment at the Happy Hearts Rodeo.

Kai and the other children received a new red felt cowboy hat, a navy blue bandanna and a brown stick horse.

Then the action began in the rodeo arena.

Some kids rode the horses while others tried their hand at simulated bull riding, calf roping and sheep roping.

Kai said the rodeo was great fun and exclaimed, "It goes back and forth," as he stepped off the "bull," a bale of hay sitting on a clay pipe so it would rock.

Happy Hearts volunteers like Phil Lawson helped each child ride and rope, as much as their ability would allow. Lawson held onto Kai's belt as he rocked. Kai's face lit up like a one of the cowboys in the Fontier rodeo's Grand Entry.

Children in wheelchairs found sitting on a hay bull a bit more fun than staying in their wheelchairs.

Andrea and her sisters, Julie and Samantha, were all smiles, too, watching Kai have his day inside the fairgrounds' rodeo arena, where later that night pro cowboys would also ride.

"It's a good opportunity to let the kids have their own space, something for themselves," Andrea said.

A horse's appeal to youngsters was mystifying but effective at the Happy Hearts Rodeo.

"Horses are an equalizer – kids are having fun and don't focus on their fears," Chapman said.

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