CUYAHOGA FALLS — Stories have been written about people with special talents or abilities who don't quite fit into the boring normal, yet are not always appreciated for being unique. Think any superhero.
Alexander "AJ" Ochoa, 14, lives with high-functioning autism and severe attention-deficit disorder that set him apart from other students, but he flies over jumps on the back of a horse with calm and confidence.
"AJ was adopted from Russia and had sensory issues as well as A.D.D. and anxiety," said his mother, Shelly Ochoa. "We did many years of occupational therapy for sensory issues, which improved."
AJ can sit with an adult and have a conversation but when relating to kids his own age, it’s tricky, Shelly said. He doesn't understand they want to act like a kid when he is focused on academics or adult topics.
In 2017, a student with behavior problems at the public school he attended saw AJ as an easy target and he was traumatized after the student physically attacked him, greatly increasing his social anxiety, she said.
AJ began riding with Reschke Equestrian at Ridgewood Stables in Medina three years ago.
"This became a turning point for him," Shelly said.
Although riding and jumping might increase stress in others, it has a calming effect on AJ.
He began competing in mini-trials where he did a dressage test, stadium jumping and cross-country jumping.
"We just switched to more stadium jumping and more hunter jumping shows," Shelly said.
Erika Reschke is AJ's instructor and works with him three times a week using positive reinforcement.
"When going through the jumps she says ‘Look ahead and not at the jump,’" AJ said. "It really helps. She does a good job. She tells me when I do a good job."
AJ attends the online public school, Ohio Virtual Academy. He takes most of his classes in the afternoon and the flexible schedule allows him to ride in the morning when the stable is less crowded, Shelly said.
In his second year of Ohio Virtual Academy, Shelly says they take one year at a time and plan to continue it for his first year of high school, which will be next year.
"OVA has a wonderful ceremony they do in Columbus, so if we stay in the program, he could have a full graduation ceremony," Shelly said.
The family owns two horses. AJ began training on a Cremello Connemara pony named Expecto Patronum and was 14 plus two hands tall but the pony had to have an eye removed last year because of a chronic disease.
The new horse is a Selle Francais named Ademius "Addy" and is 16 plus three hands tall.
Horse height is measured in hands and inches from the ground to the withers, or the ridge between the horse’s shoulder blades. One hand is equivalent to four inches, so "16 plus three hands" is 67 inches, or 5 feet, 7 inches.
The family hadn’t intended to purchase another horse, but they visited friends and Ademius came across the pasture and right up to AJ, which is unusual for a horse to act toward strangers, Shelly said.
"He walked right up to me and just buried his face into me," AJ said. "I was surprised. He chose me."
"A horse picks its rider," Shelly said. "They're a different horse when they're with that person. He pushes AJ to be a better rider and AJ gives him the ride he wants."
The bay gelding is excited every time he sees AJ come to the stable, he said.
"A lot of horses don't want to work but he wants to work," AJ said. "He likes that I ride him."
The big bodied horse is perfect for a hunter jumping rink, Shelly said. Jumper show competitions begin in April and Refchke alternates between flat work and going over jumps.
"You have to thoroughly memorize the course and be in the correct position and steer around to the jumps," AJ said. "On the jump you lift your body up and lay close to his neck as he's going over. The landing is easy."
Bonding with Ademius has helped AJ bond with others, Shelly said. He's opened up more and interacted with other riders, trainers and caregivers of the horses.
Although AJ hasn't chosen a career, he enjoys chemistry and physics, which helps with jumping.
"Riding gave me confidence and makes it easier to talk to others," he said.
"The horses are also extremely calming, and he's a different person when he walks into the barn," Shelly said.
AJ's sensory issues have a special ability to sense a horse's needs.
"He's different from other riders," Shelly said. "Trainers say he can feel what is going on with the horse underneath him."
He'll tell the trainer something about the horse such as its hindquarters are sore and it will prove true.
"I can feel the horse tense his muscles," AJ said. "I can feel that."
AJ said he enjoys online school and the riding confidence has given him.
Quirky and special, but not boring.
Reporter Laura Freeman can be reached at 330-541-9434 or firstname.lastname@example.org