A vaulting instructor helps her student balance in Forward Stride's vaultin program.

Embracing Authenticity – Zoey’s Story

An instructor assists a girl balancing on a horse and lifting one leg in Forward Stride's vaulting program

In the time Zoey has been vaulting at Forward Stride, she has taken significant steps forward in her social, emotional, and physical skills.

Zoey’s mom shared a memorable moment from one of her daughter’s earliest lessons. “I remember driving home from our 3rd vaulting lesson, it was dark out, past our dinner time, and Zoey was eating a snack. She asked me if I had talked to the other moms yet. I told her I had a little, but why? She confessed that she’d noticed I didn’t talk much to anyone while she was vaulting. “If you talk to them next week, you might start becoming their friends,” she told me. We talked a bit about how making friends is hard for me sometimes and that I was open to her suggestions. 

But why this moment is so memorable to me, why I came straight home and told my husband about it, why I texted my mom (and a couple friends, I have them, contrary to my child’s beliefs)… is hard to explain. Zoey is autistic, ADHD, and dyslexic. Noticing social interaction, processing it, and discussing it is hugely significant for her.”

9 months before Zoey began vaulting with Forward Stride, she started Occupational Therapy (OT) at a clinic near her home. Her mom said, “She was making gains and we are thankful for the time, dedication, and support of her therapist. However, it was clear that Zoey understood that OT was for teaching skills that didn’t come naturally or were not where they should be for her age.

At Forward Stride, things that come naturally to Zoey can support her skill building, both physically and mentally. She is encouraged to be exactly who she is while also pushing her comfort level to develop new, stronger, and more complex skills that she finds internal motivation for.”

Sometimes she [Zoey] will ask me to print a photo of her on “her horse” to show her friends. She has used these photos to talk to children and adults that she’d previously never talked to, even having known them for months.

Zoey has made leaps forward in emotional regulation and social communication.

- Zoey's mom

A young girl and instructor practice balancing on a horse in Forward Stride's vaulting program

At the age of 7, Zoey was able to stop Occupational Therapy because of vaulting. Her mom points to the “big social leaps within weeks of beginning vaulting, including her giving me social advice immediately following her second or third lesson…almost like she’d been crossing that midline and doing physical work that allowed the switch to go off in her brain.” 

It had been clear to Zoey that “people do OT because of their differences” and her parents “needed to talk to her about the benefits of OT and how helpful the exercises were.” Zoey’s time vaulting stood in clear contrast to this. “We’ve never needed to discuss what vaulting does for her development. Learning meaningful skills through an activity she deeply enjoys needs no explanation to her”, her mom shared. 

Two students practice vaulting movements with their instructor at Forward Stride's vautling program.

Zoey is now 8 years old and through vaulting, has learned to push herself outside of comfort zones while staying true to herself.  Her mom shared a story that encompasses Zoey’s experience with Forward Stride. “I remember last winter she was rolling her helmet/head across the arena wall, back and forth. You (referring to Amanda Garrison, Programs Director, and Vaulting Instructor) came and leaned on the wall next to her and commented on how you assumed that must sound cool. You nonchalantly mentioned that it was her turn on the horse and asked if she’d rather do her turn or keep making the sound. You sipped your water and just…I don’t know how to describe it exactly but it felt like you had no expectations on her to do a certain thing and that’s when I knew we were in the right place.

There are times you simply tell her what’s happening (like what your expectation is or what she needs to be doing) and other times where you let her choose but there’s something about how you honor these children’s autonomy that we deeply appreciate here. Even when I know I’ve brought you a child who is tired, maybe hungry, and probably dysregulated (the timing is rough at 5 pm!)… she seems to know she’s safe. Being supported and included while being her authentic self means everything to us” 


For Zoey, vaulting at Forward Stride gives her a place to learn and grow – both in social and emotional skills and in self-confidence! 

Forward Stride is a 501(c)3 non-profit and we would not exist without our donors. Donations support every single one of our programs, help us care for our herd, and ensure we can continue to serve clients like Zoey for years to come.