When Luke Betancourt, 3, first came to Serenity Stables, he didn’t talk. He was born on the autism spectrum and with sensory processing disorder. Doctors said there was a chance he’d always be nonverbal.
His mom, Diana Betancourt, heard that working with horses helps children with autism, and she brought Luke to Serenity Stables to give it a try.
On his second session, his mom heard something she’d never heard before: Luke’s voice.
"Walk, Rio, walk," Luke said.
His mom cried.
Eventually, Luke started using basic commands, like "walk," "whoa" and "trot."
Now, only four months after his first session, he is beginning to speak at home. He answers questions with "yes" or "no." He says, "mama" — something Diana never thought she’d hear. He constantly asks about Rio.
And although he doesn’t know it, Luke also is helping Rio.
Allen Bornscheuer opened Serenity Stables almost 11 years ago as a place where people could come for equine therapy. Now, Allen and his wife, Cherina, also are rescuing horses on their way to being slaughtered.
With 50 rescue animals, including 35 horses, the couple’s goal is to save both humans and animals.
The couple always dreamed of opening a horse stable. Allen Bornscheuer, who worked selling software, took his final commission check and put a down payment on a farm that became Serenity Stables.
His wife, a clinical psychologist, joined him about six years ago. Ever since, they have worked with police officers and veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, children on the autism spectrum and anyone else who needs a little bit of horse therapy.
Each person is different, Cherina Bornscheuer said.
"We celebrate the little victories," she said. "Just coming here and getting out of their comfort zone is a big step for them."
About two years ago, the couple opened a nonprofit, Serenity Saviors, that rescues horses. They use the hashtag, #WeSave2.
"We’re not just saving this animal from slaughter," Allen Bornscheuer said. "We’re saving the person that we put on their back from what ails them."
They have rescued about 200 American Saddlebred horses from kill pens. Some are from Amish communities and no longer able to pull a carriage. Some are from people who can’t afford to keep them.
The horses often suffer from starvation, arthritis or swollen joints. Veterinarians treat them before they go up for adoption.
The couple gets teary-eyed talking about the work they do saving horses.
"How can we not save this breed that we love so much?" Cherina Bornscheuer said.
Some horses can never carry a rider again, but have a permanent sanctuary at Serenity Stables. Some are healed and adopted. Some stay and help with therapy.
Each of them has a story.
Like Bacardi, who was rescued from Iowa after his owner couldn’t afford surgery for his breathing problems. He has a girlfriend, Black Beauty. Or Jazz, who has become Serenity Saviors’s mascot. Jazz has physical and emotional injuries, but is starting to heal.
The stable also offers riding lessons, carriage rides and events, such as a summer kids’ camp and a weekly veterans’ day. The couple hopes to get more sponsorships to fund events or build another barn.
For Allen Bornscheuer, it’s about making a difference — for horses and for people.
Before he leaves the barn, Luke always stands under Rio’s nose and slowly nods his head. Rio bends down and kisses the top of his head.
Rio and Luke are a perfect combination, his mom said.
"When he rides Rio, he’s a different person," she said. "I’ve never seen anything like it."
Luke is training for a horse show in October where his first challenge will be to hold the reins and stand up tall for three minutes straight.
The Bornscheuers don’t seem to see Luke’s disability.
"They see the potential," his mom said. "They don’t see anything else."