Little boy tall in the saddle

RAYMONDVILLE — A small boy in a plaid shirt held tightly to the saddle, the white horse “Cricket” beneath him nodding slowly with each step.

Lucas Riojas, 3, of Beeville, was a big man in small shoes Saturday at the Willacy County Youth Rodeo. Like many small children in the rodeo, he wasn’t racing through the cloverleaf barrel race. His parents, Carlos and Leticia Riojas, were gently leading him through the course around the barrels.

Many parents were leading the small children on their horses through the events to orient them toward horses and rodeos. At first glance, Lucas and his parents appeared to have this same purpose in mind. But Lucas was walking a different path from the others.

“My son had a stroke in utero,” Leticia said when they returned from the arena. She had a ready smile as she spoke about the challenges and the progress her son has made.

“Riding horses is a good way to work on balance for him,” she said. She gestured toward Lucas, brimming with boundless energy, struggling to walk, and fearless as people and horses towered over him. His non-stop talking revealed an above average intelligence and a passion for life.

His mother confirmed the obvious: The stroke hadn’t caused any cognitive difficulties. It had caused physical problems and affected his motor skills. He’d only recently begun walking.

A physical therapist had recommended “horse therapy” to help Lucas build up his core muscles, which include abdominal muscles. Carlos, a game warden, said they didn’t have any horses, but his brother-in-law provided one.

“He likes the horse so much,” Carlos said. “It brings so much out of him. He’s not going to be able to compete, but he’ll get the social experience out of it and the love of animals. It helps improve his social skills.”

He and his wife now have a 7-month-old daughter who is perfectly healthy. Meanwhile, Lucas has therapy Mondays and Wednesdays in San Antonio. He’ll need a CT scan in a couple of months.

“We just try to stay positive and hope everything goes well,” Carlos said. “God gave him to us. It was hard at the beginning, but God only gives us as much as we can handle, so I guess we can.”

The trip to Raymondville was extremely important to Lucas, said his father. A large number of relatives were at the rodeo.

“It was very important for him to come over there and see his cousins and ride his horse,” Carlos said.

His son had spent the day, on and off the horse, chatting people up everywhere he went. His strong personality made it easy for some onlookers to forget he had any physical limitations, especially with his eagerness for getting on and off the horse.

His tenacity brought to mind the popular phrase about getting back on the horse. It’s a phrase that can sometimes appear overused, but it speaks to a universal truth about perseverance in the face of struggle.