Matt surrounded by support from his ROCK team of volunteers

R.O.C.K. hands reigns to boy with disabilities

Matt stood without assistance, slowly brushing Peggy Sue, a three-foot-tall, curly-haired miniature horse.

Dorothy, a therapeutic riding instructor for R.O.C.K., Ride On Center for Kids, stood beside Matt, interacting with him constantly. “We’re trying to get all the dirt up off the horse!” she told him. “We’re going to put our hands in the brush handle and move our hands this way.”

She moved his hands in circular motions, then instructed him to switch directions and brush back and forth.

Matt is a fourteen-year-old deemed to have a severe intellectual disability. He started therapy sessions at R.O.C.K., a 501c3 nonprofit, six years ago. R.O.C.K. offers equine-assisted activities and therapies to clients with physical, cognitive, and emotional disabilities. Matt’s therapeutic riding lessons have helped him progress beyond his doctors’ predictions and his parent’s hopeful expectations.

Matt’s parents, Barbara and James Kane, knew that there would be complications with their son when he was still in the womb.

A month after his birth, a doctor approached the family with horrible news. Matt was missing a part of a chromosome that no other human has been documented as missing.

Ride on Center for Kids

“You don’t want this child,” the doctor advised. “You need to put him in a nursing home or state facility. It will ruin everyone’s lives if you keep him.”

Observing a MRI scan of the baby’s brain, his doctor predicted that Matt would never walk, talk, or be semi-independent or capable of making choices. But no one really knew what would happen because Matt was one of a kind.

The Kanes took a weekend to process the information, came back to the hospital, and said simply, “We will do any surgeries necessary to bring him home.”

They started Matt right away in physical, occupational, and speech therapy. Matt has what his mother calls “a spark.” Their optimistic expectations and his innate abilities helped him to exceed the doctor’s predictions.

When he was three, he managed to successfully move away from his mother with a walker at Toys“R”Us. As his mother called for him to come back, she thought in surprise, “I’ve never had to say ‘Stay here’ to my son. He was never supposed to be able to do that!”

His progress prompted his family to look for another activity to add to his therapy sessions. They signed him up for sessions at R.O.C.K because the program offered a community of support that private therapy couldn’t.

“Here at R.O.C.K., he gets physical therapy and speech therapy, plus a warm animal underneath him and a social element that he doesn’t [otherwise] get because he is homeschooled,” Barbara says. “That’s a huge benefit of him coming here.”

The staff at R.O.C.K. set out to help Matt improve independence and life skills in partnership with a horse, as they do for their other 200 or so clients. Every session, he works on different therapies while interacting with an instructor, a horse, and several volunteers.

He makes choices, from horseback, about colors of balls he wants to throw into a bucket. He walks short distances without aid and can yell ‘go’ and ‘stop’ to the horse—all goals that the doctor who, when Matt was a baby, thought would be unreachable.

“R.O.C.K has given Matt a lot more independence because it’s something he does away from me,” Barbara says. “He says goodbye to me and does his lesson. I might sit out on a bench on a nice day and he might wave to me when he goes by, but it’s an activity he does [in which] I don’t have to be right next to him.”

His balance and strength have also greatly improved since coming to R.O.C.K. Matt can now lift himself into the bathtub at home and up into his family’s minivan because he’s learned the similar motion of putting his foot into the stirrup on the horse and swinging his leg over the saddle.

Matt with ROCK volunteer Kelli Lambardo

During sessions, Matt uses a high-tech communication device similar to an iPad to joke with Dorothy and his favorite volunteer, Mr. Joe. The device allows Matt to communicate at the level of a two-year-old and with the retention of an eight-year-old.

Dorothy, whose own son had challenges, says that “the parents and the people I’ve found out here look at the whole picture of the child. When my son Will, who has CP, started coming out here, it was such an emotional relief to me that a whole team of people came together and looked at my son and said, ‘Well, let’s see what he can do.’ And then they pushed him to see what he could do.”

Similarly, the staff and team of some 350 volunteers at R.O.C.K. partner with the Kanes to ask Matt, “What can you do?” The answer to that question lies in Matt’s obvious improvement.

At the end of his session, Joe said, “Good bye, Matt.”

“Say ‘Goodbye,’” Dorothy encouraged.

Matt, a one-of-a-kind-kid, used an Ernie doll’s hand to wave “Goodbye” back.

To find out more about R.O.C.K., Georgetown’s Ride On Center for Kids, visit

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