NEWFANE -- Lexi Leland initially didn't want to get on a horse.
The 3-year-old needs a step stool to even get near the saddle and she was unhappy when the animal brought her farther away from her mommy. But over the past two months, Lexi has gone from reluctant to enthusiastic about getting on Spot, her favorite black pony, and going for a stroll. And though she often cracks a smile, riding isn't just enjoyment for her -- it's serious therapy.
Lexi has sessions at the Southern Vermont Therapeutic Riding Center at Winchester Stables once a week to help with some of the difficulties brought on by Smith-Magenis Syndrome, a developmental disorder that affects one out of every 25,000 people in the world. Her first eight lessons, which started in July, were funded by a $320 donation from the local chapter of the United Steelworkers Union that Lexi's grandfather, Darren Yardley, belongs to through FiberMark.
He told the Reformer he had heard great things about SVTRC and has already seen results.
"She's actually started speaking, which she didn't do before," he said. "It's been a joy and a blessing to see how she's progressed since."
And Lexi's mother said she has already seen a difference both physically and behaviorally.
"Before this, she wouldn't speak. She'd grunt or she'd point to what she wanted. Since she started, I get a lot more ‘Mumma,' ‘Dada,'" said Neila Yardley, who lives in Brattleboro. "She says, ‘Grandpa,' ‘go,' ‘down,' ‘mine' and a lot more words. I love it."
Smith-Magenis Syndrome, Neila said, results in mild to moderate retardation, low muscle tone, developmental delays, distinct facial features and some behavioral disabilities. Lexi was diagnosed with the condition when she was 2 weeks old.
"What she's doing right now is straightening Lexi's legs. Sitting on that pony, in general, is centering her core, strengthening it," Yardley said while SVTRC Program Director Lorna Young and volunteer Patsy Mehlhop walked Lexi and Spot around the grounds on a beautiful Monday morning. "It really does a lot for her. She's been verbalizing a lot more since she started this. It's still fun to watch."
The four then walked a trail along the outside of the picturesque area before it's time to enter the roundhouse, where Lexi rides Spot over a post laid on the ground and must lead her pony to certain objects on the structure's perimeter after Young asks her where they are. This exercise helps with Lexi's cognitive and vocalization skills.
Young, who started the nonprofit three years ago, said her focus is to help Lexi express herself.
"This is a positive recreational experience for her because she can get up and ride a horse along with her peers. It doesn't matter that she isn't verbal. She's doing the same thing that somebody else her age would be doing. And that's what a horse allows us to do," Young said. "I think what I've seen from Lexi is that it means so much to her. It's become a big part of her life and obviously it's involved her family. Her grandfather came and watched her and he's also helped get funds."
Shannon Yardley, Lexi's grandmother, and family friend Cagney Morse were on hand Monday to support Lexi and look after her 2-year-old brother Tristen, who got to ride Spot when his sister was finished.
Young said therapeutic riding can be used for people in a variety of situations, including military veterans with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, someone with poor motor skills or a child with a learning disability or attention disorder.
"I work with at-risk teens and we do a different theme every week -- trust, confidence, responsibility -- and they learn how to work the horses and learn their skills for their everyday life," Young said. "They're learning about animals and it's kind of cool to see. Those kids that have so many problems in the rest of their life, they just love their horses and take care of their horses."
She said horses offer unconditional love and trust human beings, who must learn to trust them in return.
Neila Yardley said Young and Mehlhop have been a big help these past two months.
"(Patsy has) been working with Lexi since she started in July. She volunteers a good hour out of her day to come here and help Lorna work with Lexi," she said. "Lorna is excellent with her. Lexi has had a lot of services her entire life and this is by far one of the greatest experiences that Lexi has ever had."
Neila said Monday was the final session paid for with the money from the steelworkers. She said she hopes Medicaid will foot the bill for more, as she has seen tremendous progress since July and Lexi's pediatrician recommends it.
"The first day we came here we had no funds, we had nothing. We were just coming to see how it would work and see if I could pay per session because I don't have a lot of money," she said. "Had we not gotten the money from the steelworkers' association, we'd still be fighting with Medicaid to even get her paid for her first eight weeks. It was very important to get that money from the steelworkers' association."
Domenic Poli can be reached at email@example.com, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoli_reformer.