Veronica and Marty Barillas never thought the word "horse" would mean so much to them.
Nine years ago, their son Nico was born with Down syndrome. He's mostly nonverbal and communicates with an iPad app. Veronica and Marty are always looking for ways to enrich his life and find ways to teach Nico to express himself.
When they learned "horse therapy" was being offered in the Austin, Texas area, where the family lives, they signed Nico up. It seemed like the perfect fit.
"He's always had this incredible relationship with animals," Veronica said.
Watchdog Mary first introduced you to Nico earlier this year after he requested people bring supplies for foster dogs instead of presents to his birthday party.
So off Nico went, one day a week, to horse therapy. He loves putting on his helmet and gear. When Nico rides he’s accompanied by physical, occupational and speech therapists.
One day Nico came back from his walk on the horse and two of the therapists were crying. “My wife thought something horrible happened," said Marty. "It turned out while he was on the ride Nico said ‘horse’ three different times! They were tears of joy. When my wife heard the news, she started crying too!"
Veronica describes it as a moment she will never forget. "When I heard the word 'horse' come from his mouth, I was shocked because Nico had used very few words prior to that. It will do down as one of the best moments in my life to date," said Veronica.
Licensed Clinical Social Worker and canine specialist, Katherine Martin, told us she was not surprised about Nico's breakthrough.
“Animals can help calm us, make us feel loved and accepted, and create bonds with those of us who love them,” said Martin. “Animal therapy, for many reasons, is on the rise in all different capacities, from mental health to helping people with disabilities. It's easy to see why this special young man may be so gifted in communicating with these animals. It's an amazing and not quite understood part of our relationship with animals but fascinating to even have the simplest understanding of such a bond.”
Martin runs Canine Assisted Therapy and Healing, “CATCH” in Indiana. Her partner is a black Labrador rescue dog named Drake. She saved him after he was thrown from a car by his prior owner and had to have a leg amputated.
Now Drake helps patients feel welcome and at ease in Martin’s office.
Molly Crossman, a researcher in Yale University’s Psychology Department, studies the influence of animals on people.
She warns that before anyone tries animal assisted therapy they should take some common-sense precautions. “We hear kids with disabilities and animals have an affinity, we hear this a lot from the disability community. I’m encouraged by these stories and think they’re a fantastic inspiration for researchers," said Crossman. "But, this doesn’t mean other kids with similar challenges would get the same benefit. We just don’t know that yet. If you want to have animal assisted interventions make sure the organization has a good reputation and takes precautions. There are always safety concerns with small kids.”
Nico continues to thrive at horse therapy and seems to have found his favorite word. "When my wife picks Nico up at school he points to his chest and says, ‘horse.' It’s a significant breakthrough. It’s very exciting," said Marty.