Nonprofit pairs autistic kids with horses

Jason Auslander
The Aspen Times
On the horse is Sheryl Barto and Mia, a 3-year-old from Glenwood Springs in the Horse Boy program.

When Sheryl Barto saw the movie “Horse Boy,” it struck a deep chord, and she knew she had to get involved.

The movie chronicles an autistic boy and his family’s journey to Mongolia to visit a shaman in search of a cure for autism. But more important to Barto, the story is about how horses opened a line of communication between the boy and his family, she said.

Barto is a lifelong horse lover — she rode for the Indiana University of Pennsylvania equestrian team — and also has a son on the autism spectrum. The father in the movie, Rupert Isaacson, later established the nonprofit Horse Boy Foundation to help other autistic children through the use of horses, which Barto thought was a great idea.

“It made sense to me,” said Barto, a 25-year resident of the Roaring Fork Valley. “And now it’s coming to Aspen.”

For the past three years, Barto has been training at the main Horse Boy facility in Austin, Texas, in preparation for starting her own chapter — the first within Colorado’s Western Slope. And in June, she quietly kicked off that chapter by welcoming the first three children into her program, which takes place at her Carbondale home known as Smiling Goat Ranch.

“It’s quite emotional for all the volunteers and everybody who’s involved,” Barto said.

As an example, Barto related the story of a 13-year-old girl in the program who is nonverbal. When volunteers put her on a horse, she didn’t want to get off for an hour, and kept trying to say “go” every time they stopped the horse.

She said the girl’s mother, who communicates with her daughter using an iPad, wasn’t sure how she would react to being on a horse, and was “thrilled” with the results.

“Cantering hooks all of us to riding,” Barto said. “It produces a hormone called oxytocin, which is feel-good hormone. It calms the nervous system.”

The calmer a child is, the more open he or she is to communication, she said.

The same hormone can be beneficial to people afflicted with other neurosensory issues such as attention-deficit disorder, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, Barto said.

With that last one in mind, Barto is partnering with Lt. Col. Dick Merritt, an Aspen-area veteran, to start a similar horse program for veterans with PTSD in March 2016.

But for now, she’s concentrating on the three children currently in the program. The 13-year-old — whose mother is a friend of Barto’s — is from Seattle, but the other two children — a 3-year-old and a 4-year-old — are from the Roaring Fork Valley, she said. Barto doesn’t charge participants and relies on volunteers — including her family — to run the Horse Boy program.

Volunteers undergo training, as do the horses they use, she said.

“These are very special horses,” Barto said. “They have to be on the older side, but also super athletic.”

Her four horses — Alaska, Adobe, Gates and Tessa — all underwent 20 weeks of training to be able to participate in the program. Barto said it doesn’t matter if the horse is a mare or a gelding, and that it’s more about the horse’s disposition and temperament

“Horses have an amazing ability to be gentle and understanding around autistic kids,” she said.

In celebration of the new Horse Boy chapter, Isaacson, the group’s founder, will visit Smiling Goat Ranch during an open house this afternoon from 4 to 6 p.m. Barto said the public is welcome to stop by.

Also, Isaacson will host a screening of the 2009 “Horse Boy” movie at 6:30 today at the Third Street Center in Carbondale.

“It’s all open to the public and we’d love people to come to the screening,” Barto said.

As for the future, Barto wants to be able to “serve as many families who need our services,” she said.

For more information about today’s events or volunteering for Horse Boy, call 970-379-1383.