LOCKPORT, Ill. — Five-year-old Teci Avila sat atop the muscular-yet-gentle quarter pony as it did laps around a dusty barn here.
"She's holding herself up very well. Good job, Teci. You're loosey-goosey today," said Kate Rasmussen, an equine-therapy instructor who was giving directions, as one volunteer led the horse and two others held up Teci.
"Big step, Teci. Don't lean too far, my friend. All right, Teci, we're making a turn."
Teci, who was largely expressionless, wore a purple safety vest over a pink Supergirl shirt as she rode Tater Tot, who was the color of milk chocolate.
"She's holding herself up more," Rasmussen observed. "She's even leaning back."
Teci bent forward more as the afternoon wore on, even closing her eyes at times. Rasmussen cut the session short because the girl got too tired.
Still, Teci's parents, Liz and Guillermo, were happy with how the day went.
"I remember the first time she was on the horse, she was all the way forward," said Sandy Moleski, owner of the equine-assisted therapy barn Legacy Ranch, where Teci started going two months ago. "From day one to now, you definitely see a difference."
The Avilas are happy with any progress. It was just two years ago they were told Teci would never do anything purposeful again.
That came after Teci choked on a grape, causing her severe brain damage. At first, doctors thought she would stay in a vegetative state.
But her parents didn't — couldn't — give up on her.
They have been traveling around the country, getting Teci intense rehabilitation as well as alternative therapies — in the hopes of having their little girl walk and talk again.
Teci has basic health insurance, but it doesn't cover many of the treatments, so her family has been relying on money from fundraisers for her care (a benefit is being held for her Saturday in Lansing). Liz, 35, had to quit her job at Beggars Pizza to tend to Teci; Guillermo, 36, still works there.
"The community of Lansing has been so amazing, even people outside of the community," Liz said, noting that the family spends $1,400 a month on Teci's therapies. She posts her daughter's progress at Super Teci on Facebook so donors can see where the money is going. "We thank everybody for the love and support we've gotten from day one."
Teci gets integrated manual therapy at a clinic in Oak Brook, Illinois. That alternative treatment is said to use light touching to improve structural and functional deficits in the body. Liz said it has cut down on Teci's muscle spasms.
Teci recently did two months of rehab in San Antonio at the Children’s Rehabilitation Institute of TeletonUSA, which treats kids with severe neurological disorders regardless of their ability to pay. Liz said that afterward Teci started lifting her head on her own, even sitting on her own for short periods of time.
The family also spent months in New Orleans so Teci could get hyperbaric oxygen therapy, which delivers pure oxygen in the hopes of stemming brain damage and growing new tissue, and also got a chamber for their home.
Liz noted that Teci has needed less suctioning to clear fluids from her airways, and has been more vocal, giggling even. And the frequency of the 5-year-old's hospitalizations for respiratory problems has decreased, from five in the first year after the accident to one this year.
"She's smiling, you can see," Liz said earlier this month at the horse stables, as Guillermo held Teci's head up and she appeared to grin.
"Are you happy to see the horses? Yes," he said to her. "Teci, are you ready to see the horsies?"
"You ready to go see Tater?" Liz said, putting a big pink bow on her daughter's head.
The equine therapy, Liz said, is meant to improve Teci's head and trunk control.
Liz said the family chose Legacy Ranch after two other horse-therapy places told her there was nothing they could do for Teci.
"We firmly believe that if there's a way we can work with clients and help them, we'll do it," said Moleski, the owner.
"For (doctors) to say she was not going to do anything — they literally said — 'purposeful,' the last few therapy sessions all she has done is things that are purposeful," Liz said, adding that she now warns parents of young children to cut their grapes.
"I don't know if you could tell, but we'd do anything for her."