The rust-colored dust swirls in great heaps as Woody, a therapy horse at Buckaroo Barn, saunters around the arena. Riding atop Woody is 22-month-old Lawson Haddock and physical therapist Kristye Chastang.
At just a year old, Lawson was diagnosed with infantile spasms, a rare form of epilepsy. If not brought under control, the seizures can be catastrophic. This particular type of seizure, however, cannot be treated with regular seizure medication. Instead, Lawson was put on a strict regimen of two steroid injections every morning and evening. The toddler’s mother, Amanda Haddock, shudders as she recalls how swollen Lawson was while on the medication.
“He was so big, so big,” she says. “He was miserable.”
Yet, even with all of the steroids, the seizures weren’t getting better. “They controlled the seizures a little, but they didn’t stop them,” Amanda says. After several months with no sign of remission, it became evident that surgery would be necessary. Lawson underwent seven separate surgeries, including a hemispherectomy, an intense operation which disconnects the two halves of the brain. The procedures were successful, and Lawson has been seizure-free for seven months.
Before starting therapy at the barn, Lawson had no use of the right side of his body and was completely unable to move on his own. Now, he can crawl energetically like other toddlers. Kristye explains how Lawson is paired with a horse that suits his particular needs.
“Lawson has right-sided weakness,” she says. “The horse is forcing his body to go further left and right so that he really gets that core symmetrical strengthening.”
Amanda has even noticed improvement in his speech, attributing the development to hippotherapy (the term for equine-assisted therapy) engaging all parts of his brain. Recently, Lawson reached another movement milestone; he was able to clap with both hands for the first time as he watched his two older brothers play in a baseball game, something he was unable to do five months previously. His mom observes that although he is not exactly where he should be developmentally for his age, he is very close, all thanks to the amazing team at Buckaroo Barn.
Kristye has been helping children like Lawson achieve the impossible for more than 16 years. Before founding Buckaroo Barn, she had built up an excellent reputation as a pediatric therapist. She and her husband are both horse lovers and have owned horses since the beginning of their marriage. At the time, hippotherapy was completely unavailable in the Bay Minette area. She never thought she would own her own business, but when the need presented itself, Kristye felt called to fill it. As she ventured out into the unknown, things just fell into place. Now, families drive from multiple states to benefit from her expertise.
Kristye explains what makes hippotherapy such an amazing treatment tool. “When the kids are sitting astride the horse, their pelvis and their body move in the three dimensions of movement that their body would move in if they were walking normally. So it prepares their neurological system, it prepares their balance reactions, their strength, to be able to handle that pattern of movement and, hopefully, learn to walk one day.”
All the exercises that Kristye has her patients do could be done on a mat or another still surface in an office, but doing the exercises on a moving horse adds an extra element of challenge.
“It’s almost as if the horse’s movement is a catalyst for their progress,” she explains. The constant motion of the horse stimulates the child’s muscles during the entire session, challenging them every second.
The horses also make the process more enjoyable for the kids. The bond between horse and child helps eliminate the feeling of manipulation that some patients experience in a traditional therapy setting. Therapy is still a challenge, and sometimes there are tears, but the Buckaroo team always reminds the kids, “You can do hard things.” Encouragement and generosity are at the core of the Buckaroo mission.
“It’s so much fun to be a part of all these families’ journeys and see these kids thrive and reach their potential,” Kristye says, her blue eyes shimmering with enthusiasm. “I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
If you would like to support Buckaroo Barn, run (or walk) in the Buckaroo Stampede on Saturday, June 26, which begins in front of Daphne City Hall. The 5K begins at 7:30 a.m., and the 1-mile fun run starts at 8:30 a.m.
To learn more, watch the documentary video produced by Red Clay Media on thisisalabama.org which features Buckaroo Barn, airing in June.