Toby lifted 4-year-old Nathan’s tiny hand and touched it to the horse’s withers. She tapped the horse gently with Nathan’s hand while saying, “Go.”
The horse stepped forward. Nathan smiled. She held his hand and tapped the horse again while clearly giving the verbal command “Go.” The horse took another step. Nathan’s grin widened.
Toby released Nathan’s hand and looked encouragingly into the boy’s eyes as the horse waited for his next cue. Without hesitation, Nathan tapped the horse. Nothing happened. The smile faded from Nathan’s face, but he tapped the horse again. And again.
Toby smiled at him, touched her finger to her lips, and mouthed the word “command.” Nathan struggled to understand, but Toby continued to demonstrate, waiting patiently for him to try again. Suddenly Nathan’s face lit up. He tapped the horse and blurted out, “Go horsey!”—the first words he’d ever spoken.
Nathan had been diagnosed as “developmentally delayed” and had never talked. His mother had heard of Toby Freeman’s hippotherapy program, called HorseTalk, for children with speech difficulties. She enrolled Nathan because traditional means of therapy had not seemed to help.
Toby, an accomplished rider, was born with an addiction to horses and had always had them in her life. She became fascinated with communication and speech at a very young age. Her great aunt and great uncle were deaf, and when Toby was about 6, she began to notice they had a dynamic way of communicating.
While other family members would communicate with them by writing, it seemed so limiting to her. She began to watch their body language and even their eyebrows. She studied the way they used their hands to talk to each other in a combination of finger spelling and sign language.
They taught her their method, and it allowed her to join them in their world. That was the first time Toby felt the inner connection that lies within people with speech limitations. It was the first time she felt the wonderful feeling of opening worlds.
When Toby was 13, her babysitter, Rae, suffered a stroke that left her with significant speech difficulties. Toby remembers her mother taking her to visit their beloved friend. It was such an emotional moment for Toby when Rae greeted them as they entered her hospital room, that she remembers the words: “Hi, Jimmy, the sunset’s beautiful.”
Puzzled, Toby watched as the kindly woman struggled to communicate and finally realized Rae was saying, “Hi Toby, how are you today?”
At that young age, Toby found herself frustrated by what happened to someone’s ability to communicate when stricken with a stroke. From then on, she began to study language and speech, spending her free time submerged in encyclopedias at the library.
By the time she entered high school, she knew she was going to use her gift of loving language and communication to help people open new worlds. Toby charted the path then to go to college to become a speech-and-language pathologist. By the age of 17, Toby was fluent in four languages.
Toby earned her Master of Science degree from the University of Michigan in speech-language pathology in 1978 and devoted herself to helping children and adults learn the joy and power of speech and communication.
After working in various clinics and hospital settings, in 1985 Toby opened her own practice to provide traditional speech and language therapy to children and adults.
Her practice grew, and she was enjoying many successes and thrilling moments opening doors to new worlds for her clients. Sometimes, however, traditional therapy would seem to plateau, leaving her frustrated and filled with a desire to do more. But there seemed to be no answers to certain roadblocks.
Then when she’d been practicing for 20 years, her father was diagnosed with a very aggressive form of cancer. Toby visited and cared for her father daily.
To help manage her sorrow, she would end her days at the barn. Riding her horse and just being with him, feeling the sustained motion beneath her, brushing him, loving him, or simply crying into his mane would lift her spirits. It helped her clear her mind.
She’d always known of the connection horses could make with people, if the people would listen.
She’d always known of the connection horses could make with people, if the people would listen. Toby was listening. She felt a stronger power to focus and ability to cope building within.
One day she had an epiphany. She thought of her clients who needed something more to help them open doors. She thought of the ADHD and autistic children who had so many sensory issues to combat. And she thought of the magic of motion.
She asked herself, “Why can’t I bring the children to the horses?” Toby calls that epiphany her father’s last gift. He passed away in just a few months.
Dutch Henry is a novelist and a freelance writer who writes about “people and horses helping horses and people.” You can reach Dutch at email@example.com. His novel “We’ll Have the Summer” is available on Amazon and Dutch’s website www.dutchhenryauthor.com.
This is Part 1 of a two-part series.
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