Nov. 12, 2013 at 3:11 PM ET
Isaiah Forte, 9, flashes a brilliant smile from the horse he’s riding. Diagnosed at 2 with autism, Forte for years had difficulty communicating and connecting with others. But then the little boy met a smallish chestnut mare at the HorseAbility Center for Equine Facilitated Programs in Westbury, N.Y., and everything started to change.
“We struggled to find a breakthrough,” Isaiah’s dad, Rick Forte, told TODAY, tears welling up in his eyes. “HorseAbility . . . really gave him confidence. That, to me, was like his coming out party. That was awesome.”
The little boy, who plays classical music and draws, may have had trouble connecting with people, but with the little mare, everything came naturally.
“Immediately Isaiah took to the horse,” said his mom, Dianne Forte.
Isaiah’s parents recognized early that he was not developing normally.
“He didn’t respond to his name,” Dianne Forte said. “He wasn’t sitting up. His core strength was poor. There was a lot of tantrumming because his expressive language was poor. His older brother Rashad was diagnosed with autism when he was 4. So we kind of knew what to look for.”
Barbara Hotchkin, a certified therapeutic riding instructor and lesson manager at the HorseAbility center, said the group provides therapeutic horseback riding services to children and adults with special needs.
Isaiah obviously has no problem talking to the mare as he leads her in the riding ring. “Ginger,” he calls out. “Walk please.” Up on Ginger’s back, he gives the command to speed up. “Trot please,” he says firmly, as they take off at a good clip with a therapist holding on to the bridle and another with a hand on Isaiah’s leg to provide support.
The impact of the little mare has been felt far beyond the riding ring. His teachers see the change in his class work.
“He’s now able to focus better on reading,” said Caroline Farkas, a special education teacher at the Davison Avenue School. “With a child like Isaiah, it’s imperative that you go beyond the four walls of the classroom. I just see horses are helping him in the classroom.”
Isaiah has even competed and won ribbons at a big horse show on Long Island in a class for riders with disabilities.
“His classmates know him as ‘Isaiah who won the Hampton Classic,'” Farkas added.
While it’s clear that riding has helped bring Isaiah out of his shell, it is unclear how it stacks up against other therapies for kids with autism.
There have been a few recent studies looking at the impact of “hippotherapy” on autistic kids, but they were small and researchers used parental reports, rather than expert evaluation, to judge the magnitude of the effects, said David Mandell, director of the center for mental health policy and services research at the University of Pennsylvania and associate director for the Center for Autism Research at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
“To date, there is no rigorous study suggesting that horseback riding per se is particularly beneficial,” Mandell said, adding that there has been research showing that contact with animals can reduce anxiety in all children.
Mandell would rather see parents with limited resources put their money into proven autism treatments.
The Forte family doesn’t need scientific studies to convince them of the benefit to their son.
“In just these few short years, the progress I’ve witnessed is monumental,” Dianne Forte said. “Isaiah can be absolutely anything he wants to be.”