By Denton Josey, Features Editor
Brenden Baker isn’t your typical cowboy.
Riding a horse in Griffin Arena at the Taylor County Expo Center, Brenden literally has a following. It’s not because he’s riding without a saddle or that he’s only 4 years old. It isn’t
even because he sometimes rides backwards or catches and throws a ball while in transit.
Brenden is surrounded by three volunteers because he is in therapy with the Hendrick Equine Rehabilitation Opportunities program. His shouts of “Horse!” and “Ball!” echo throughout the arena.
Like the stoic cowboy in many Westerns, Brenden didn’t speak when he began the program because his core muscles were too weak. He could barely cry. However, after two years of H.E.R.O., he has found his voice.
A patient at Hendrick Center for Rehabilitation since he was an infant, Brenden was born with Desbuquois Syndrome, which causes weak joints and, most noticeably, what is known as dwarfism. Through the H.E.R.O. program, which helps children with any of a number of medical conditions rehabilitate and develop, Brenden and his peers find help in the arena.
The average 4-year-old stands around 43 inches tall and weighs nearly 30 pounds; Brenden is 22 inches tall and weighs 15 pounds. His unique condition requires him to go to physical therapy twice a week and speech therapy once a week.
JoBeth Huber-Willis, physical therapist at Hendrick, facilitates Brenden’s physical therapy. Willis said Brenden goes to H.E.R.O. for 20 to 40 minutes a week to improve his coordination, balance and speaking skills.
“He was not walking yet, and he had such poor trunk strength and respiratory weakness,” Willis said. Willis said within two months of therapy Brenden improved greatly in his balance and coordination, as well as speaking skills.
“The first time he got up on the horse was the first time he was eye-toeye with anyone,” Willis said. “It gave him a tremendous amount of self esteem and confidence.”
Willis’ involvement with H.E.R.O. goes back six years, but the program is 15 years old. H.E.R.O. reaches 75 clients a year, and Willis estimates hundreds of children have ridden one of the 11 H.E.R.O. horses.
This year Brenden rides a horse named Abby. Abby’s walk helps Brenden with his balance, which was one of his weak areas when he began the program.
Known as Hippotherapy, referring to the Greek word for horse, the motion of a horse’s walk helps patients because it is similar to a human body’s motion: rhythmic, variable and repetitive.
The patients of H.E.R.O. develop better strength, coordination, motor skills, posture and mobility as a result of riding the horses. Some children, such as Brenden, even see improvement in their respiratory system.
Willis, who works with 40 to 50 children a week, said Brenden is delightful to work with.
“He has such enthusiasm; there are no pretenses with him,” Willis said. “He can make anybody’s bad day become a very good day very quickly.”
Willis isn’t the only one who enjoys working with the program. H.E.R.O. hosts four full-time volunteers and 90 part-time volunteers annually.
Beth Byerly volunteers because she “loves kids and loves horses.” Byerly, whose work spans 10 years, helps train the horses to work with kids and walk with volunteers on all sides, something a horse typically does not do.
Byerly said they expose the horses to people walking around them and to the toys used in the kids’ rehabilitation exercises before they begin taking riders around the arena.
“Horses have to have the mindset and mentality to deal with what we put them through,” she said.
With activities that build stronger neck and trunk muscles, such as playing catch while riding the horse or stretching to hang plastic rings on a PVC tree in the middle of the arena, the children hardly notice they are in therapy.
“You have such a different atmosphere here,” Byerly said. The kids can hear birds, see trees and, of course, see and feel horses, she said. “They don’t realize they’re doing therapy because they’re playing ball.”
Brianna Allen, junior preoccupational therapy major from Abilene, said the kids enjoy the therapy so much because working with horses is different from other therapy they go through during the week. “The horses make it more like play,
but they’re still working and improving.”
“I just love working with people,” Allen said. “It’s rewarding to see kids have fun and playing with horses and doing something they wouldn’t normally do.”
Brenden doesn’t adorn himself with the chaps, spurs or hat cowboys often wear. He always sports a helmet when he’s on a horse and sometimes he wears a bright yellow shirt that reads, “Grandpa’s Little Sidekick.”
Bruce Bachmann, Brenden’s grandfather, takes Brenden to H.E.R.O. some weeks and enjoys watching Brenden improve. “All his mobility has greatly improved,” Bachmann said. “We were a little bit leery about how much this would do for him, but the change is amazing.”
“Anytime he sees horses he talks about it,” Bachmann said. “He really enjoys coming out here.”
Bachmann said Dwarfism has more than 200 varieties, but Brenden’s is so rare only 30 people in the world have it and he isn’t expected to grow taller than 3 feet.
For now, Brenden gets around on an electric wheelchair or a walker, but Willis said the goal is to help him reach a level of age-appropriate functionality and independence.
Like any cowboy and his horse, one of the goals of Brenden’s therapy is to see him get on and off the horse by himself. Willis said she also wants to see Brenden speak more clearly and in sentences.
The vision for improvement isn’t limited to Brenden; Willis wants all the cowboys at the H.E.R.O. rodeo to make strides in the therapy and to increase awareness locally.
“Our goals are just to be able to see as many [patients] as we can and let the community know we’re here.Ó