By L.A. Sokolowski
Why do we smile? The answer, in part, is because it activates our brain, stimulating its emotional center (the amygdala) while releasing neural communication-boosting neuropeptides like oxytocin and mood-elevating neurotransmitters, like dopamine and serotonin.
Smiling invites a chemical domino effect that opens us up to relating betterwith others and with ourselves.
It also happens to be the goal of Smiling Goat Ranch, a transformative haven in Carbondale, Colorado, where Sheryl Barto and her menagerie, including a Paint Horse called “Gates,” offer equine-assisted therapy based on the Horse Boy Method at no charge to families living with loved ones on the autism spectrum.
The Horse Boy Method started in 2004, when a Texas father named Rupert Isaacson sought a better way of connecting with his own autistic son, Rowan. The method sees autism not as a problem to be fixed but as a skillset and series of gifts, and it serves roughly 20,000 families weekly in 20 different countries. While some program participants do emerge as riders, it’s about achieving communication and self-advocacy, using horses ascolleagues.
Over the last five years, Sheryl, 56, has watched Smiling Goat Ranch help hundreds of children and adults. Like Rupert, she found herself on a journey toward better connection with her own autistic son. When she started, she might have been green broke about running a therapeutic nonprofit, but shehad a few good horses, and decided she could learn the rest while carvingsome fresh neural pathways of her own.
Now a Horse Boy Method certified trainer, Sheryl says Smiling Goat Ranch made a vow to never to let fees hinder healing. And she means it.
From Horses to Horse Boy
Colorful horses have always been a part of life for the daughter of SherbynOstrich, a veterinarian and past president of the American Veterinary Medical Association. Sheryl grew up exploring the orchards and farms of Pennsylvania from the back of a pony called Tomahawk’s Supreme, joined by the family dog Brownie. She started riding Paints in college.
“My first was Hi Dell’s King. I showed in chaps that my dad had custom made from the hide of a deer he shot,” Sheryl said. A degree in journalism led to work in public relations that has been her day job ever since.
Her work led Sheryl to the Horse Boy Method. In 2012, she did pro bonopublic relations work for a local autism group, Ascendigo, which was planning its first fundraising gala in Aspen; Rupert was among its celebrity autism parents.
“I had never heard of him and found that incredible because I had a son withautism and was horse crazy, although horses had been on hiatus for years.
“I watched Rupert and Iliane (Lorenz) demonstrate how they taught kids literacy, math, geography and history, all from the back of a horse. I was moved to tears. It was as beautiful as it was effective.
She came home to her husband, Karl Hanlon (they had been married only nine months) and pronounced that she had found her calling—how would hefeel about adding horses to their lives?
Fortunately, the newlywed had grown up on a cattle ranch in Wyoming. Yes was an easy answer.
From mentors like Rupert and Rowan, and Dr. Temple Grandin, Sheryl learned to listen for the cadence of her own son.
“Temple’s advice is to follow a child intellectually, physically and emotionally. This includes building on their interests. From age 2, my sonwas obsessed with cars and trucks. Some think it’s unusual or impossible for an autist to drive. For my son, he was so obsessed with driving he was quite good at it. He got his license at 16 and became a FedEx ground driver. He’s an essential worker now, delivering medicine to the local hospital and doctors’ offices.”
This is an excerpt from the full article—get the whole story in the Spring 2021 Chrome magazine, which is sent to all current APHA members. Not a member? Join or renew at apha.com/join.