His name is Josiah. He is 10 years old and has autism. When he visits In the Company of Horses’ therapeutic riding program at the Majoda Stables in Moorestown, his favorite equine is Patches.
One day Josiah looked in the face of the paint horse and was convinced he detected a light flicker in its eyes. It caused the boy to wonder. And think. And explore.
In the months that followed, Josiah repeatedly returned to the stables and talked about experiments he conducted at home as he tried to find out about that flickering light. He drew diagrams and pictures of what he believed the light source was. He asked his mom to get him books about horses. His learning fuse had been lit.
“Josiah eventually learned that the light in Patches’ eyes was actually him,” said MaryAnn Brewer, president of In the Company of Horses, founded in 2006 and based in Pemberton Township. “What being around Patches did was make him curious to find out why.”
Brewer, 49, a 1980 graduate of Lenape High School, said the kids come, get on horseback and ride, offering them body stimulation along with emotional and cognitive connection.
“I’ve had autistic kids who went through the program who talked for the first time because of it,” Brewer said. “You can’t measure what that means.”
Brewer said horses and humans have a long relationship in the world of learning and growing. In stepping into the world of horses, people are affected physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.
The therapeutic riding program combines the living power of equines with the accepted standards and practices of psychotherapy, physical therapy, group therapy, character education, life skills, leadership training, and team building to produce uncommon results.
In one-hour sessions, equine specialists work in concert with mental health professionals to help those with challenges clear life’s hurdles.
“We need people to see that horses can be used for more than just riding,” Brewer said.
Brewer didn’t have horses as a child, but a friend in Monmouth County did. The love affair began. It continued into adulthood, when she graduated from Parelli University in Colorado, the top horsemanship program in the world, and when she bought a farm, which 12 of her horses call home.
“Horses don’t care about race, or socioeconomics, or whether you’re the president of Johnson & Johnson, or if you’ve been incarcerated,” Brewer said. “What they do is give honest feedback.”
There’s an old “MASH” episode in which Col. Sherman Potter says, “I’d still rather spend a day with a horse than with most people.” I sense that Brewer and the old colonel would have gotten along just fine, same as the horses at Majoda and their riders with challenges.
“The big thing is these people are getting out in the world and doing things others do,” Brewer said. “For example, if there are weak kids with cerebral palsy, riding may be one of the few things they can do. Riding helps them build courage and learn how to take risks. When you can learn to make a 1,200-pound animal do what you want it to do and go where you want it to go, imagine what that does for your self-confidence?”
Brewer recently heard from a man whose 25-year-old son has Down syndrome and who attended her therapeutic riding program. He said that last summer his son participated in the Gloucester County Dream Park equestrian disciplines for those with special needs, but had not ridden since and began failing to thrive.
“The father said doctors didn’t know why this was happening,” Brewer said. “They ran tests and everything. They concluded that the son was just depressed.
“But through psychotherapy they learned he wasn’t thriving because he wasn’t seeing and riding his horse every week. He was experiencing symptoms from lack of being with the horse he had a relationship with for two years. It just shows you the benefits of what a horse can do.”