A helpful horse, of course
Jan 12, 2013 (Odessa American - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
The label of "special needs" doesn't mean a thing to a horse. On Saturday morning at the Ector County Coliseum, children facing all degrees of disability in their lives were just a big group of gentle kids who wanted to ride -- not too fast -- but ride they did.
Hope Santiago, 9, of Monahans was back for her second time at the Special Kids Rodeo of the 80th annual SandHills Stock Show and Rodeo. She wore a bright purple bandana around her neck, and like most inside the Coliseum, she was all smiles.
"I like when we go up and down, and up and down," Hope said while mimicking the motion of holding reins from her small wheelchair. She repositioned herself onto her knees. Her horse's name was Rabbit, she remembered.
"It was fun," Hope said.
Not too long ago, Hope and her parents Angel and Stella raised $4,500 for the Make A Wish Foundation after Hope was given her wish in 2006. The Santiago family took a vacation to Florida.
"We played in the water and went to Sea World," Hope said.
The Santiagos, like many of the other 100 or so families on the Coliseum grounds, were overjoyed for a day to take photos and experience the rodeo first-hand.
The members of the Christian Youth Night committee put on the Special Kids Rodeo for about the last seven years, when they started with fewer than 30 children.
It takes almost as many volunteers to put it on, too. With seven riding horses and three handlers per horse, staff to lift the kids from a platform onto the horse and others to man the calf roping, face-painting, check-in ... it's a full house. A few special needs teachers from Ector County Independent School District were even on horseback riding with their students.
Volunteers from Horses, Hearts and Hands Equitherapy Ministries of Midland were clad in their boots and denim ready to help. The nonprofit organization is still fairly new and offers horse therapy to children with special needs and also veterans.
Riding a horse can help with speech issues, balance and self-esteem, said Deborah Ellison, the founder of H3 and a Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship certified instructor. The four-step beat when a horse walks is therapeutic and allows the brain to be re-trained to learn skills while on top of the horse.
"They get to feel special in a good way," said Annaliese Scoggin, the H3 board president. "It builds their confidence. They learn they can handle a horse -- then they can do other things too."
Horse therapy isn't only child's play. Vietnam War veteran Ruben Martinez rides with H3 and is a volunteer with the Veterans of Foreign Wars honor guard.
The Marine Core veteran (1967-68) was exposed to Agent Orange and is affected by neuropathy, a nervous system disease.
"It has helped me enormously. It settles you and settles your mind. I recommend all veterans to try it," he said.
Ellison pointed out that many siblings of special needs children were participating Saturday and at H3, because so much attention from the parents is demanded of a child who is disabled.
"It's an amazing event. Everyone gets to be a part of it," she said.
For mom Nicki Swain, it was an escape from the usual Saturday routine.
"It's good to get them out of the house," Swain said, who brought her four kids out to ride.
Some children were more timid than others, but 6-year-old Byron Swain described it how most did: "Fun! It was good."
Glenda Mixon and Brenda Berta, twin sisters who hail from Wink, were like paparazzi to sweet Joseph Pilkington, 2. He sat on a stuffed animal horse after the real horse-riding.
"He has one just like that at home," Berta said about the fake equine.
Mixon has been Joseph's guardian since August. She's a justice of the peace in Wink and is friends with his mother, but is helping to take care of him for now. She said her son died as a baby and it's been wonderful having him in her home.
And to their delight on Saturday, Joseph was right down with the horses and the cowboys.
"We thought you just come and watch the rodeo. This is awesome. We get to participate, it's great," Mixon said.
Just a few horse-lengths away stood the Herrera family, who were in Odessa checking out schools for their inevitable move from Katy, a Houston suburb, for dad Phillip Herrera's job. Little curly-haired Michael and Maria bounced around near the calf roping area (no real calves today).
"It's a fun time and they love it," Kristy Herrera said.
--Contact Lindsay Weaver on twitter at @OAschools, on Facebook at OA Lindsay Weaver or call 432-333-7781.
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