Saddle Up: For those with disabilities, Wagon Wheel’s HUB opens up the world from the back of a horse

11 July 2023

It was 15 minutes by the time Grady Bettys was ready to bring his horse ride to an end Saturday morning. But for his parents, it might as well been for the entire morning. They couldn’t be happier.

Kayla and Jake Bettys  walked (and sometimes ran)  next to the horse as their son, who is autistic, rode. As the ride came to an end, Kayla commented it was the longest he had ever been on the horse since the family started using Wagon Wheel’s HUB, a faith-based therapeutic riding center based in Austin.

It was a moment of pride that carried significant meaning for the family.

“Grady is very dependent on the iPad,” Kayla said after the ride had come to an end. “It’s very hard to get him to do anything else, especially for any length of time. We’re super happy if he can get five minutes. When we first started last fall, it really was five minutes because he starts to self-harm.”

However, the changes have been dramatic, for both Grady and his younger brother Gentry, who is diagnosed with Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

It’s what the Bettys’ have been hoping for and thrilled to see.

“It’s fantastic,” Kayla said. “It makes me have hope because every day, to get (Grady) to do things, is a battle. It’s very exciting that he can stay there for so long. We say ‘just a little more, a little more’ … he accepts that.”

For Gentry, riding the horses is an empowering experience that can also be centering for the boys.

“Gentry — it’s his posture and his knowing what to do when he gets on the horse and how to act around the horse,” Kayla said. “He’s so calm, quiet and still. We’re looking for different things and seeing different things — all positive.”

It’s everything Wagon Wheel’s HUB’s owner, Lorna Lauinger was hoping for when she established her non profit in 2008. However, some things don’t move as fast as a horse can run, and so Wagon Wheel’s didn’t start actually taking users until last summer.

In that short period of time, though, Lauinger has seen not only the growth in Wagon Wheel’s, but the power that has come from using horses to reach those with disabilities. 

“The horses are magnificent animals and they can tell how you are feeling,” Lauinger said. “They can reach out to you.”

The dream of beginning a therapeutic riding program arose from a deeper love of the animal Lauinger had grown up with. 

Over those early years she began to see the possibilities of using the animals in tandem with people.

“As I grew up I started to think, they really help people and I always wanted to do something with horses and people,” she said.

Her hopes and ideas gained steam when she thought about using horses to help her late husband, who had major health problems. Ultimately, he would be paralyzed, but before he passed, he urged Lauinger to help others, even if the horses could have helped him as well.

“He gave me a look I had never seen before,” Lauinger remembered. “‘There are more people who need it more than I do.’”

Riders are taken through a number of different activities including stretching to reach tail and ears, riding around the ring and playing various games that help with coordination and confidence.

In order to get Wagon Wheel’s rolling, Lauinger paired with a number of volunteers to help, including Eric Blust, who’s acreage east of Austin is the current location for Wagon Wheel’s.

Blust has long wanted to own horses and currently has five in his stable. Two of the older ones, both near 20, are used in the therapy.

“It’s gratifying to see it from the therapeutic side of things. Seeing the progress of the riders coming out,” he said. “That’s great to see, meet new people and socialize a little bit.”

Since his family has moved to the county, Blust has had an urge to host people, but before Wagon Wheel’s it was more of an all-encompassing wish.

“This is something I kind of envisioned down the road,” Blust said. “Not necessarily the therapeutic side, but being able to open up what we have out here and invite people to get acquainted with horses and farm life if you will.”

There’s also a bit of serendipity as the horses used this bright sunny morning. It was the horses first home prior to Blust owning the property.

Volunteer Beth Kalliokoski helped with getting the horses to come home again and the fact that they can be used for a bigger purpose makes it that much better.

“They have a great connection,” Kalliokoski said. “They really help with all sorts of disabilities. They help with their ability to move and exercise, especially with disabilities. It’s just a great opportunity for kids to come and learn.”

But the real difference is for the families themselves. Kayla said that not only does this help Grady and Gentry with their individual needs, it also gives them a chance to get out and be together.

“We’ve seen progress, we’ve met goals, we’ve set new goals,” she said. “I love that it’s something outside, it’s something we can all do as a family because that’s a big hindrance for a lot of things.”

That kind of reaction and that kind of improvement has a continued impact on Lauinger.

“It’s a dream come true,” she said. “I can see where we can build on this for more things.”

A fundraiser for Wagon Wheel’s HUB will be held at Pizza Ranch on July 27. Tips that night will go to support Wagon Wheel’s efforts.


Wagon Wheel’s HUB is looking for volunteers. If you love horses or just love helping people, then this therapeutic program may just be for you. 

Volunteers would be asked for one Saturday a month and are trained in how they can help with the program.

Anybody with an interest or questions can call 1-320-262-2864 or email [email protected].

The post Saddle Up: For those with disabilities, Wagon Wheel’s HUB opens up the world from the back of a horse appeared first on Austin Daily Herald.

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