By Suzanne Pollak
DICKERSON — The many back and brain surgeries Jon Kohl suffered through after his helicopter crashed in Afghanistan in 2013 almost left him paralyzed. Not one to give in, the Gaithersburg resident now spends his days doing non-contact boxing, cycling, Pilates and archery. He credits his comeback to his horseback riding sessions at Madison House Autism Foundation’s riding program.
“She gives me power,” Kohl said of Shay, his favorite horse, which he has been riding for five months.
The foundation began when JaLynn and Gregory Prince realized there were very few programs for their adult son, Madison, who is on the autism spectrum. After turning 21, he phased out of the public-school system with few options.
About 10 years ago, his parents started the foundation in Rockville, which strives to enable adults with autism to reach their potential.
The therapeutic riding program, located on 400 acres in Dickerson at what the Princes dubbed Madison Fields, is one of its offerings. The nonprofit riding program offers equine-assisted learning to people of all ages and abilities.
“Something about controlling a 1,000-pound animal is pretty empowering,” explained Jessica Simpson, equestrian manager. “Horses don’t care if their riders are able to speak or have limited mobility.
“Horses are pretty amazing,” she added, noting that the animals will shift their bodies to accommodate riders with balancing issues.
Kohl was recovering in Walter Reed National Military Medical Center when he first visited Madison Fields. He later signed up for lessons, and within a few weeks of actual riding time, he had the confidence to try other activities, his wife, Aileen Kohl, said.
Simpson loves to watch the growth in riders as they progress through the program. She spoke of a teenage boy who is nonverbal and on the autism spectrum.
When he first arrived, “He was terrified to even get near the animal,” Simpson recalled. For the first several lessons, the equestrian center staff and volunteers gradually worked with him, until on the fifth lesson, he mounted his horse.
“On the fifth lesson, he typed ‘Thank you for believing in me,’” Simpson recalled. And then she said he kissed his horse.
Horseback riding “is very therapeutic. It provides them with an outlet to express themselves,” she said. “Pairing the horse with the person is a very delicate process.
“It’s important for the horse and the rider to work well together,” she said, adding, “There is a horse for everyone. We find a marriage that works.”
Currently, 25 clients ride at Madison Fields, which is open Tuesday evenings and all day Thursdays and Sundays.
Simpson envisions a more robust program that is open more days and with more riders.
Therefore, her organization is working to build partnerships and become better known throughout the area.
“We rely heavily on volunteers and donations,” she said, noting, “It’s really expensive to run a place like this.”
Currently, participants come from Montgomery County, the Frederick area and Northern Virginia, she said.
“This farm is for everybody. This farm is inclusive,” said Steve Robinson, deputy director of the Foundation, adding, “We really can’t do this without the community’s help.”
Other programs offered through the foundation include a housing network, which is an interactive online community for adults with special needs and their families, and Arts for Autism, in which adults with autism can express themselves through art and then showcase their work.