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A boy with a developmental disability pets Doc as part of his riding experience at Cassidy's Cause, a nonprofit created to provide therapeutic horse rides for children with special needs. Here, small acts of kindness can go a long way in determining the path of a child's life.

Healing on Horseback

story by Jeffrey Zide

The teacher lifts the boy from the ground. He is scared, but with a gentle nudge from his therapist, he suddenly finds himself high above the ground. He breathes a small sigh of relief and settles into his leather seat. His little hand brushes a long, brown mane. The softness of a horse's hair helps to soothe the anxious mind of a child.

This is Cassidy's Cause, a nonprofit created to provide therapeutic horse rides for children with special needs. Here, small acts of kindness can go a long way in determining the path of a child's life. Here, a lift to the saddle, the sway of a horse and a sense of stability can become a magical experience.

The women of Cassidy's Cause know this. Jennifer Smith, Christy Woley, Dara Triplett and Angie Falconite are dedicated to helping people with special needs. A majority of their clients are on the autism spectrum. Many have difficulty communicating, as well as some physical limitations to strength, balance and coordination.

Angie and Dara saw the challenges when they founded Cassidy's Cause in 2013 to expand the parameters of what can be done with horse therapy. The organization is almost entirely volunteer-driven, with four full-time staff and 140 volunteers dedicated and passionate about making life a little better for those in need. It was named after Dara Triplett's daughter Cassidy, who died of a rare childhood disorder. Dara always had a love of special needs kids, and Cassidy had a love of horses.

"She lives on in us," Dara says. "She shows up in a butterfly, and she's in her own little world."

Using a combination of stretches and learning to move up the horse, the children develop physical strength that is obvious to the eye. Less obvious but possibly more profound are the psychological effects. Jennifer's daughter, Ainsley, who was one of the first clients at Cassidy's Cause, overcame the communication difficulties of autism and worked up the confidence to sing the national anthem at the Murray State Rodeo.

"She knew exactly what she could do," Jennifer says, "and so much of that comes from being in in this program ... knowing that every time she gets on that horse she's in control, and she's able to overcome any fear she has of failure or lack of communication."

Watching the four kids riding in line today, moving at 15 miles an hour with poise and without fear, it is easy to imagine the hope and strength that will be the legacy of Cassidy's Cause.

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An instructor in training presides over her first class, a group of three boys, most on the autism spectrum, who range in age from 12 to 18.

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Christy Woley (left) comforts one of her students after her riding session. The relationships between instructor, students and volunteers are critical to building self-esteem and motivation in the students, as much as the horse rides themselves.

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An instructor helps a student take off her boots as she prepares to dismount Beau during her therapeutic riding session.

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Christy Woley (in white) helps an adult student, providing a written sheet with facts about horses before his therapeutic ride.

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In Cassidy's Cause, participants build confidence and self-determination on step at a time, nudged along by small acts of encouragement and kindness.

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Stretching, using fully extended arms, increases core strength and provides an emotional release.

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Ansley Smith takes Bob for a ride around the barn. Ansley is on the autism spectrum, but her experience with horseback riding gave her the confidence to sing the national anthem at the Murray State Rodeo, according to her mother, Jennifer, who is the developmental director of Cassidy's Cause.

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The softness of a horse's mane and a few kind words from an instructor can make all the difference to a nervous child.

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An autistic girl discovers a moment of pure joy while riding her horse during class. Autism is a developmental disorder characterized by impaired social interaction and repetitive behavior.