Lake Barrington teen with autism finds peace, success with horses
The first time Jake McManus put on a riding helmet as a 5-year-old, he screamed and screamed in protest.
Getting Jake, who has autism, to approach a horse and get on its back was quite a feat, too.
"It was just like my heart was pounding so much, I can't even think inside my brain," the 19-year-old Lake Barrington resident said of his first experience with hippotherapy, a form of occupational therapy with horses.
But everything changed as soon as Jake straddled the powerful animal. He was so entranced he calmed down almost instantly, recalls his mother, Stacie.
That was the beginning of a deep passion for Jake, who moved on to therapeutic riding and has since become such a skilled rider that he earned a spot on the U.S. equestrian team for the Special Olympics World Games next month in Los Angeles.
On Saturday, Jake carried the Special Olympics torch aboard his beloved horse, Harry, through the streets of downtown Chicago.
"He just really found love with horses," Stacie said. "And so as a result, it allowed him to really progress."
Jake is the only rider from Illinois and the youngest member of the U.S. Special Olympics equestrian team. He is an A-level rider, the highest level meaning he rides independently without any assistance, said Tracy S. Hilliard, vice president of sports training and competition for Special Olympics Illinois.
"The level of his horsemanship and his ability to train and focus and develop those skills so that he's competing at such a high level independently ... it's pretty incredible," Hilliard said.
Jake has been competing in Special Olympics since he was 9 years old. He also takes part in regular competitions, such as at Harvard Milk Days, his mother said.
"Once you put him on a horse, he's undistinguishable (from other riders)," Stacie said. "It's the in-between that sometimes gets sticky and the autism gets most apparent."
His father, Michael, agreed. "(Horse riding) has been hugely impactful and positive," he said. "On a horse, you'd never know he has a disability."
Jake is in a lot of ways a typical teenager, with a goofy, mischievous streak that constantly amuses those around him. But he also gets nervous and cranky with unfamiliar people and situations, and he is easily affected by smells and weather changes.
As soon as he gets on a horse, however, "he's focused and engaged, 100 percent," his mother said.
He has a special bond with Harry, a 14-year-old quarter horse that he's ridden for years. His parents purchased Harry for him in 2013.
Among their rituals is "cowboy yoga," when Jake lies down on Harry spine to spine, allowing his breathing -- and the horse's -- to slow down.
The family loves Harry, too, and indulged Jake last summer by allowing the horse into the house, where he ate carrots in the kitchen.
"We saw a weird video of a white horse named Peaches that lives inside of two cowboys' home, a trailer, and my brain thought of something interesting -- 'Why not (let) Harry be inside the house?" Jake said.
Jake is student at Barrington High School, where he will be transitioning out of the special education program before his 21st birthday. Over the years, he's truly absorbed the academic and social lessons he's been taught, teacher Liz Robbins said. He always follows the rules and tries his hardest until assignments are completed, she said.
"Jake has grown in every way," she said. "A lot has to do with the familiarity of his environment and the people he works with."
He also is working part-time at a barn in Barrington, where he grooms horses and cleans stalls. While having a child with autism means you'll worry for life, the fact that Jake is developing practical skills is a source of comfort, his parents said.
"It's the evolutions of all these skills (he's been taught)," Stacie said of Jake's work. "It's something in real life that he's employable in -- and something he loves."
Jake will be competing in three events -- dressage, English equitation and working trails -- at the World Games. When you ask him which is his favorite, he says none. What he loves is bareback riding, with no saddle, "like native (American) Indians," he said.
One challenge of the World Games is that Jake won't be able to ride Harry, because athletes aren't allowed to take their own horses. Instead, he'll choose among three horses picked for him by Special Olympics trainers.
Jake doesn't say whether he's worried about that, but he alludes to nervousness about being in a team environment, which can be difficult for people with autism.
"Sometimes, having a team is just hard," he said. "It's just other people would mess up my mind and then things just wouldn't be the same."
Meggan Hill-McQueeney, president and COO of BraveHearts Therapeutic Riding & Educational Center in Harvard, has known Jake for years. She believes not having Harry with him in Los Angeles won't be a problem because Jake has ridden dozens of horses.
"I think he'll adapt and do great. He's been preparing for this most of his life."
Jake is "every coach's dream model student," Hill-McQueeney said.
"He's one of those young people who's always thrived on competition," she said. "He's like a pinch-hitter. He comes through when you really need him."
Hill-McQueeney also credited Jake's support system -- his parents first, but also his many therapists, coaches, riding buddies, volunteers and donors -- with helping him achieve the goal of making the U.S. team.
"Lots of people have invested a lot of heart and soul into him. No doubt he'll make them proud."
Jake McManusAge: 19
Hometown: Lake Barrington
School: Barrington High School
Who inspires you? Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman of the TV show "MythBusters"
What book are you reading? I like to read about dinosaurs
What music are you listening to? "Bad Blood" by Taylor Swift featuring Kendrick Lamar and "Rockstar" by Nickelback
The three words that best describe you? Hardworking. Hilarious. Picky.