Ten-year-old Alyssa Peterson is the happiest child you would ever meet.
According to her mom, Traci, she jumps and bounces all day long. She loves reading and math. She could spend all day writing and animating her own comic books. She loves drawing, building with Legos, and listening to music while bouncing on a yoga ball.
From the outside, she looks like every other 10-year-old. But on the inside, she struggles daily.
Alyssa has autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
“She feels such frustration with being misunderstood, not being able to communicate ‘typically’, and not being able to express herself for others to understand and accept,” Traci shared.
Alyssa was born without her corpus callosum, the largest single structure in the brain that joins the two hemispheres. As a result, she couldn’t even physically cross the midline of her body with her arms.
After many attempts at traditional physical therapy, the Peterson family found the Northern Virginia Therapeutic Riding Program (NVTRP) in Clifton.
Alyssa started physical therapy sessions incorporating horses (formerly known as hippotherapy) and the results were remarkable.
“Early on, we saw the benefits of riding from a physical perspective,” said Traci. “Within a year of hippotherapy, Alyssa had completely even muscle tone on both sides of her body, she could easily cross midline, and was so balanced that standing on a horse while walking posed no issue.”
But what her mom is even more proud of is the peace that Alyssa has found at the farm.
“While the physical changes and benefits are nothing short of incredible, what it does for her mind, body, and spirit is even more amazing. NVTRP is Alyssa’s happy place. She builds a trusting relationship with the horses and all the autistic tics she has on a normal basis disappear,” said Traci. ”Her anxiety subsides. There is a sense of calm that comes over her and allows her to observe and enjoy her surrounding environment. This is the only therapy she does that allows her to feel like a kid. Her childhood has been lost to therapies, doctors’ visits, and surgeries. But here - at NVTRP - she finds joy.”
The Petersons have also found added benefits that come from equine-assisted services - the ability to take what you experience at the barn and translate that into Alyssa’s everyday life.
“With riding, she can see and feel the difference that it has made, which has given her a confidence that she has not found elsewhere,” Traci explained. ”She is now able to carry that confidence with her to brave new challenges, overcome obstacles, and believe in herself. She knows that if she can stand on a horse, she can do anything.”
Founded in 1980, NVTRP provides equine-assisted services to people with disabilities, youth-at-risk, recovering military personnel, and others in need by helping individuals recognize the unexpected potential in their lives.
Clients improve fitness level and mobility through different programs by gaining core strength, muscle control, and balance. Working closely with horses - highly intuitive prey animals - inspires them to build self-esteem and further socialization, and also helps to provide both clients and their families with a sense of community and belonging.
“Alyssa knows that at NVTRP, no one cares what her diagnosis may be. They care about who she is. They don’t see autism or ADHD,” said Traci. “They see a kid who doctors thought would never walk or talk, having the time of her life, putting forth her best effort, and finding out more about who she is as a person every time she rides. It is the only place that makes her feel like a person, and not a diagnosis. For her, horseback riding and NVTRP are home.”