A 15-year-old Deaf boy in Perris is pursuing his dream of becoming a professional cowboy, despite the unique communication challenges that being deaf pose.
Athien Hernandez is learning the age-old equestrian sport of reining, which has its roots in the Old West. The sport has evolved over the years, with many now competing in the confines of a show arena.
The teen and his instructor, Luis Torres, who is not deaf and does not speak sign language, have somehow been able to communicate with each other, and Torres explained how they overcame the problem of using conventional verbal cues to communicate with the horse.
“Most of my students, I teach them that a cluck or a kiss, which is a verbal cue, sends a horse forward. With Athien, we don’t have that,” Torres told KTLA. “So, now he has to rely on his body, to lean forward and allow the horse to be able to feel that.”
With his mother, Sally Zarate, translating, the teen said he’s been training every week for seven months.
“That’s the goal for me. I want to join competitions. I want to keep practicing. I’m hungry for it,” Hernandez said in sign language.
Zarate said finding a coach for her son was not necessarily easy.
“We did actually find a woman not too far from where we’re standing now. She gave us about five minutes of her time, put Athien on a horse and then said, ‘No, no, forget it. I can’t do it unless you can fix his ears or teach him how to hear me, then I can’t train him,’” Zarate said. “I explained it to Athien and he was just so heartbroken and it was the first time he actually ever experienced discrimination.”
The 15-year-old persevered. Rather than allowing rejection to shut down his dreams, he and his parents, Sally and Kyle, later found Torres.
“Having a horse teaches you responsibility, it teaches you understanding of almost humankind,” Torres said.
That’s the part that the teen said came naturally to him.
“Why do I love it? Oh, man, the horses, they’re my favorite. I just get on them, they’re fun, I enjoy it. It feels good. I care about the horses. My heart, it just belongs to them,” Hernandez signed.
The teen said that his biggest goal is to have his own ranch, his own horses and teach other people.
“I don’t want to reject anybody just because they’re hearing and only focus on the deaf,” he signed.
Hernandez attends the California School for the Deaf in Riverside, which gained national attention last year for the success of their football team. Though he wasn’t on the team last year, he is playing this year, but his heart, his family said, is in the show arena. Unfortunately, reining is expensive.
So, his family has set up a GoFundMe campaign to help the teen get to two training events in the coming months.