It was just three words, not a very long sentence, but it was the most magical sound to Jennifer Lane’s ears.
Shortly after his first birthday, her son, Josiah Lane, went silent. It was as if he’d suddenly taken a vow of silence.
Then it happened.
"I leaned over one night at meal time and said, ‘I love you,’" said Jennifer Lane, a Gainesville resident.
"He leaned over, hugged me tight and said, ‘I love you.’"
That was in July, nearly five years after autism locked down his vocal chords and just four months after starting horse-related hippotherapy through Finding Faith Inc. at the Walker Therapy Center in Gainesville.
"When you don’t hear words from your son and then he tells you he loves you ... it just brings tears to your eyes," Lane said.
"For the short time he’s been here, he’s come a long way," said Josiah’s father, Michael Lane.
Although the staff and therapists at the Walker center on Knight Road have played a tremendous role in Josiah’s progress, some may argue that the real miracle workers trot on four legs and are found in the stable area.
Prior to starting his weekly occupational therapy on horseback, Josiah was nonverbal. Today, you’re likely to hear a merry giggle when he’s tickled or an insistent "Go," when he’s ready to leave.
"Riding the horse stimulates his diaphragm and vocal chords," Jennifer Lane said.
"It brings out the language and we have been so amazed."
In their quest to find natural treatment options for their son, the Lanes stumbled upon hippotherapy. The treatment had been cost prohibitive until they found Finding Faith, a nonprofit that uses donations to help clients that can’t afford the full service cost.
Finding Faith uses the American Hippotherapy Association’s guidelines to train staff and the therapy animals for treating individuals with developmental disabilities, impairments and other limitations.
"Hippotherapy by definition uses the movement of the horse, but we often times use the horse as a therapeutic tool for equine assisted therapy sessions too," said Nicole Walker, owner of Walker Therapy.
The rest of the center is a for-profit business offering a variety of other therapeutic services, but Walker created the nonprofit for the hippotherapy program to keep it accessible.
Insurance companies will pay for typical therapy sessions, but not the added costs that come along with hippotherapy. Each session requires a horse handler, not to mention the maintenance costs that goes along with keeping horses in good health and safe living conditions.
"We actually lose money on hippotherapy," Walker said.
Funding from the program comes from community donations and whatever monetary contributions clients are able to give.
Walker began her horse therapy program about 10 years ago at Sunny Farms Stables, which was owned by Charlie Gabriel, still a regular Finding Faith volunteer.
While hippotherapy has helped many speech-impaired clients find their voices, it’s also good for helping build strength and improve gross motor skills.
"One of the foundations of hippotherapy is that the horse’s movement is the same as a human’s. When you’re riding, the horse is moving the body in the same three planes of movement that human beings use when we walk," Walker said.
"There are machines that have attempted to mimic that, but nothing comes close to the horse, so hippotherapy can help improve walking (skills).
"A lot of kids, especially those on the autism spectrum, don’t have a good idea about where their bodies are in space, so that’s why they can be clumsier or defensive to touch. Riding helps them in that area.
"When you’re riding, you have to stabilize your core to keep yourself centered and you’re squeezing your legs to keep yourself on. The kids are learning about core strength, balance and body awareness, but no one has to teach that to them.
"It’s just something they pick up unconsciously."
While Walker’s primary clients are children, hippotherapy is also beneficial for grown-ups.
"It was originally made for adults with multiple sclerosis," Walker said. "It would help move and strengthen their bodies."
Although some people may not fully understand the science behind the effectiveness of the horse therapy sessions, the Lanes and families like them can quickly make believers out of skeptics.
"The horses have a special connection with (their riders). It’s as if they can sense that Josiah is special," Jennifer Lane said.
"They have this connection with these children and it’s a blessing. It brings out things that were hidden.
"To go from having a nonverbal child who can’t communicate to finding a way that allows him to express himself is amazing.
"He’s using his words now. He’s communicating.
"It’s amazing what he’s accomplished just by riding a horse."