HARVARD – Breathing heavily, the 1,000-pound horse saunters to the middle of the indoor arena.
Annie Davison greets 4-year-old Moose, who she’s been directing around the track with a stick-and-string by rubbing the side of his neck. He lowers his head to her shoulder.
“You did good,” Davison tells him. “Come here. Good boy.”
The two have become close since Davison, 34, started helping at Cripple Creek Ranch in Harvard earlier this year.
Horses, she said, always have been a passion. She never knew she’d be able to get this close.
She’s never been formally diagnosed, but counselors suspect Davis, of Harvard, has Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism. Other than delayed development – Davison didn’t walk until after age 2 – her condition causes her to shy away from social situations and slows her hand-eye coordination. In school, she was the best reader in her grade but struggled to comprehend the words.
Three years ago, a pair of strokes led doctors to discover a hole in Davison’s heart. They operated. In the aftermath, Davison found herself bored and unfulfilled.
Enter Cripple Creek. Davison’s mom, Lisa Hutchinson, is an acquaintance of the ranch owner.
She said the difference in her daughter’s spirits is night and day since Davison started at Cripple Creek.
Working there has raised Davison’s confidence – on the track, she has no problem running in front of Moose and his brother, Shasta, causing an immediate change of direction. It’s helped her with muscle coordination and relieved stress.
“I’m definitely a lot happier,” said Davison, brushing the dusty, deep brown coat of Tate – Moose’s mom. “I’m grooming them, working them, and I come home exhausted, but it’s a good tired.”
Davison isn’t the only one reaping the benefits of interacting with horses at Cripple Creek. Christy Bourbonnais, owner of the ranch and a longtime horse trainer and clinician, welcomes people from all kinds of backgrounds.
A recently retired Buffalo Grove police officer, Bourbonnais has had former colleagues work through traumatic experiences on the ranch. She said working with horses can liberate victims of bullying or domestic violence.
“They don’t care who you are, or everything you’ve been through,” Bourbonnais said. “You show them love and respect, you’re going to get it right back. For those that have lost trust, and that have been injured, and have just gone through so many different avenues in life, I think they’re just a great therapeutic tool.”
Some of the horses at Cripple Creek come straight from the racetrack. Sometimes they’re hyped up – it takes six to nine months for a horse’s body to clear hormones pumped into them for racing, Bourbonnais said.
Davison came in anxious herself, as many looking for equine therapy do. Moose has a hyperactive personality. And when the two meet, both relax.
“The two anxieties get together and have a very strong, calming influence,” Bourbonnais said. “It’s very magical to see how it works.”
Davison said she hopes that some day she’ll get to ride one of the horses.
Her mom said that would be a huge step for Davison, as her daughter continues to develop deeper trust with the horses
For now, Davison is satisfied brushing the horses, feeding them and guiding them around the track.
She’s healthier now.
There’s no longer a hole in her heart, whether it’s the work of surgeons, or Moose.