DE PERE, Wis. - Thursdays are the best days for A.J. Schnitzler according to his mom, Kayla.
"We say, 'Where are we going today bud?' and he says, 'Maverick.'"
Maverick is the therapy horse that A.J. has bonded with at Exceptional Equestrians in De Pere.
"From the time he met Maverick, he loved him," chuckled Kayla.
The horse is helping her 3-year-old son deal with the challenges of spina bifida. It's a birth defect where the spinal cord fails to develop or close properly. A.J. struggles with muscle weakness in his mid-section and legs. He also has a speech delay.
"It's really hard sometimes, but you know you look at his face and he always gives that great smile, and it just makes it ok. You just deal with it day by day and do what you can for him, and that's part of the reason why we're here."
The staff at Exceptional Equestrians believes horses have a healing power for those with cognitive, social and physical disorders.
"Hippotherapy strengthens the core and it can strengthen the gross motor muscles, so that folks can gain function whether it's walking or even being able to crawl or sit up and reach," said Director of Marketing and Development Nancy Williquette.
A.J.'s hippotherapy sessions include throwing balls and and answering questions about objects such as explaining their shape or color.
"They definitely push him to his limits and care about him, and they're always encouraging him to try harder and do more, and he does," said Kayla.
After just six weeks of treatment, A.J.'s mom has already noticed improvements with her son.
"Now he's putting multiple words together, two, three, four words together. The other day he actually said 'hippotherapy' which is a huge word for him. We've also noticed that his balance is getting better. He just seems more stable on his feet."
Founded in 1999, Exceptional Equestrians now serves 250 children and adults per year from 14 different counties in Wisconsin. The non-profit relies on 200 volunteers annually to keep up with demand. Right now, they're holding their Spring Pledge Drive with the goal of raising $10,000.
"To bridge the gap between the cost of services and the fees for services," said Williquette.
The organization wants to continue making sure that no one, regardless of their ability to pay, is ever turned away.
"The Green Bay area, Northeast Wisconsin, is a very generous community and they made Exceptional Equestrians what it is today," Williquette said.
It's a place where A.J. can enjoy time with his new buddy while also working to reach his full potential.
"They get him to do things that we wouldn't think he'd be able to do, but he's doing them," said Kayla.