South Tahoe boy with autism learns to love animals through equine therapy |

South Tahoe boy with autism learns to love animals through equine therapy

Roseann Keegan

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – Once fearful of animals, 10-year-old Keegan Yaghlegian now runs to grab his cowboy boots and hat every Sunday when he gets to ride Violet at Kids & Horses in Minden.

Keegan, a special education student at Sierra House Elementary School, was diagnosed with mild autism a few months after his second birthday. The signs of autism appeared when Keegan was 18-months-old. His speech began to regress and he made less eye contact with his parents, Dick and Lauren Yaghlegian, who go by the shortened last name of Yost.

Then the Yosts, who own the Village Board Shop in South Lake Tahoe, attended a fundraiser for Kids & Horses, a Carson Valley nonprofit that provides equine therapy to adults and children with special needs. Keegan was on the waiting list for three years. Then in 2007, just as the Yosts were about to give up on the program, a spot opened.

Lauren Yost said the change was instant. Keegan was making more eye contact. There was some unexpected speech when they got in the car after a lesson. Today, he’s no longer afraid of cats, dogs and other animals.

“He is a little more verbal when he knows on Sunday’s we’re going to ride horses,” Yost said. “It’s probably because he’s excited to go ride.”

At the Village Board Shop, there’s a donation jar for Kids & Horses.

“They’re wonderful people there,” Yost said. “The volunteers are all very kind and very knowledgeable to Keegan’s wants and needs. They’re very contentious of the children’s safety.”

Alexis Roman Hill, the nonprofit’s executive director, said Kids & Horses is a place where “miracles happen.”

“There are four people in wheelchairs who have walked from our program,” Roman Hill said. “I have seen little miracles, kids learning to be around animals and having confidence in themselves.”

One little girl who attends Kids & Horses has rickets, a childhood softening of the bones. Recently, her leg braces were taken off.

“Her mother really credits Kids & Horses in that advancement of her ability to walk,” Roman Hill said.

There are about 30 children in the program, with dozens more on the waiting list, she said. Some of the participants have a type of paralysis, vision impairment, cerebral palsy, or, like Keegan, autism.

Some adults in the program are there to work through a type of post-traumatic stress.

“We also do help adults who come to our ranch looking for a sense of peace and trust,” Roman Hill said.

Students who are autistic are encouraged to communicate with the horse. Children with physical challenges grow stronger and more balanced.

“Their whole life, these children are led around by their parents and teachers and told what to do,” she said. “When they get to lead a horse, a huge animal, imagine the empowerment the children must feel in doing that.”

The program is accredited by the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association. Instructors are certified and have training through the association.

Fifty percent of the program is funded through its annual fundraiser, set this year for Sept. 11 at the Crystal Bay Club. The one-on-one lessons are $25 per half hour, but 40 percent of the participants are on scholarships. Additional funding comes from donations and grants.

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