At 9 years old, Talia hadn't said a word to anyone outside her home in her entire life.
Doctors didn't really know why, but the shy, skinny brown-haired girl couldn't speak. They called it global developmental delay with selective mutism — the closest a diagnosis comes to explaining a mystery trapped inside a child's head.
One day, Talia met Titan, who had never talked at all. Titan, a chestnut quarter horse, was used to helping children. At Freedom Ride therapeutic horseback riding, he had seen many medical miracles happen atop his saddle.
The huge animal had a special bond with disabled people. He helped set them free.
Atop Titan, children and adults with muscular dystrophy and multiple sclerosis who were told they'd physically degenerate for the rest of their lives grew stronger and gained better balance. Autistics, locked away in an inner world, came out of their shells.
But Talia was a rarity. Atop Titan, she couldn't say "go" or "whoa". She just sat there.
"You'd see her try to make sounds, but she never said a word," Freedom Ride Executive Director Linda Chapman said.
A year crept by as Talia saw Titan every week. She would hop out of her mother's car, walk over to her horse and touch him without a word to anyone.
"You didn't know if she could hear you," Chapman said. "We had no idea what she was taking in."
Volunteers at the stables didn't know if she'd ever improve. But then, one day there was a peep — Talia was trying to speak to her horse.
With just a whisper, she said hello to a new world.
That's the point of Freedom Ride, housed in a barn along Lee Road just west of Winter Park, catering to disabled people from all over Central Florida. Riding horses gives people a sense of freedom from their disabilities, Chapman said.
"There's something about the horse … the horse brings it out in them," Chapman said.
"They seem to really connect with the horse. Some say that horses even see the world the way people with autism do."
All of Freedom Ride's hundreds of riders, who span all age groups, have some form of disability, but all are connected by riding.
David Sitts found that connection another way. While the 25-year-old Floridian was at his sister's home near Chicago, he spent eight months riding. When he came back to his home in Longwood, he was a man without a horse.
That's where Freedom Ride came in. He couldn't participate in the program, but he could volunteer. He'd never worked with disabled people before, but he knew horses. Now he joins an army of more than 300 Seminole and Orange County Freedom Ride volunteers bridging the gap.
"Everything that you get there is unique in and of its own way," Sitts said. "It's definitely an interesting experience working there. I enjoy every minute of it."
On any given day, Sitts may go from shoveling hay to helping a rider onto a horse.
This fall, he's hoping to volunteer three days a week.
"I love working with the horses even if I don't get to ride," he said.
For some of Chapman's volunteers, Freedom Ride is the most accessible way they can be around horses. The program's 13 horses cost $1,500 a month just to feed. That's a cost many horse lovers can't bear on their own, she said.
"You ask why they come, and it's for the horses," she said. "Owning a horse is an expensive sport. This is a good way to be around horses and get outside."
And while volunteers such as Sitts get to work with horses, they get to watch miracles happen, like Talia.
That tiny whisper to Titan was just the start. Soon she was giving commands.
"Go…whoa." Then she was smiling and laughing.
Then there was that moment that Chapman won't forget.
"One day she got out of the car, came to the barn, and said hello to everybody," Chapman said. "She knew our names, the horses' names, asked us questions. We were all in awe."
Talia's mother walked behind her in tears.
"She never said a word to anyone before," Chapman said. "Now we can't get her to stop talking."
Freedom Ride, a nonprofit organization, enriches the lives of disabled children and adults in the Central Florida area through therapeutic horseback riding. It is located at 1905 Lee Road, Orlando. For more information about the program and volunteer opportunities, call