Every Tuesday evening, Helen "Billie" Ellison drives an hour from her home in Baltimore to the small town of Lisbon in western Howard County.
There, at the Therapeutic and Recreational Riding Center, her autistic son Daniel, 46, becomes an equestrian for an hour.
"He loves it. This is the biggest thing in his life; this is it," said Daniel's mother of her son's riding lessons. "He's had other hobbies off and on, but nothing approaches this."
Her son rides with six other disabled adults in the "Special Olympians Class," so named because all of the students participated in the Maryland Special Olympics last summer.
"We have some incredible riders here who just happen to be handicapped," said the center's director and founder, Helen S. Tuel. "They train all year and should be treated with the same respect as other riders. They are true athletes in every sense of the word."
Founded in 1983, the Therapeutic and Recreational Riding Center offers riding instruction to individuals with cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, mental retardation and developmental disabilities.
Its goal is to help the disabled gain some measure of independence and accomplishment through riding, one of the few physical activities that many disabled persons can participate in. An equally important facet of the curriculum is having fun.
"We stress that recreation is not a luxury," said Tuel. "It's important to the quality of their lives. To balance work and education, they need fun. We specialize in fun."
Forty-year-old Beth Schiffman, who lives in a group home for the disabled in Rockville, can't wait to saddle up for her weekly lesson at the center.
"I like cantering, I like posting and trotting and going to horse shows," said Schiffman, a center student for seven years. "I just like it over here; I've got a lot of friends here. I just love riding."
Tuel's therapeutic riding program has proven so successful that the center has outgrown its 12-acre home in Lisbon.
To raise money for a down payment on a 108-acre farm down the road, the center has planned a black-tie fund-raiser at the Canadian Embassy in Washington on November 3.
Tuel, an energetic, warm woman, initially resisted the idea of teaching a disabled person to ride. Seven years ago, she was teaching riding at a small farm in Olney when a woman, whose son had Down's Syndrome, asked Tuel if she could give the boy horseback riding lessons.
"No way," was Tuel's response, but she did promise the woman that she would find someone to teach her son to ride. After an unsuccessful search for a riding teacher, Tuel gave in and agreed to teach the boy herself.
"I said, 'I'll give it a shot, but don't expect much,' " said Tuel, who at the time was a doctoral candidate in education at Vanderbilt University in search of a dissertation topic.
It wasn't long before her newest riding student gave her a thesis idea.
"I became fascinated with how much of an impact the lessons and the animal had on him," said Tuel of her first handicapped student, who continues to take lessons with her.
"It became my passion. What was going to be my avocation became my vocation," said Tuel.
Central to Tuel's study was her observation that a great deal of learning occurs during play.
The benefits of therapeutic riding are especially apparent in children with learning disabilities, she said. Many of these students are timid and lack coordination and social skills.
"Riding a horse is a wonderful place for them to start working on their behavior -- to understand what an animal can tolerate and what he can't," Tuel said. "To get on a horse and control a 1,100-pound animal is an accomplishment.
"When they accomplish the most minimal task, it's enormously rewarding," she said. "Even their posture changes. It tells you 'I'm pretty neat. I can do these things.' " Instructors don't lower riding standards for their disabled students.
They expect them to perform as well as the other riders at the center.
The center's disabled riders have acquired quite a large collection of ribbons and trophies from competing in horse shows for both handicapped and non-disabled riders.
Tuel recalls that the students' first trip to a show for non-disabled riders was a "disaster."
"They didn't understand not getting a ribbon and that you don't yell at the judge," Tuel said. "So we worked on horse show protocol. Now their behavior in public is incredibly good."
The students at the center range in age from 2 to 85, and about 60 percent are disabled.
A non-profit organization, the center relies mainly on private contributions for its financial support. Because of their often staggering medical expenses, many of the disabled riders can't afford the $12.50 charge for group lessons. They pay whatever they can, sometimes 25 or 50 cents, and in return donate time to the center, cleaning out stalls or feeding the horses.
Sometimes community organizations also sponsor students' lessons.
"We make do, but I have such a vision for an arena," said Tuel, who hopes to offer swimming and speech therapy at the new center.
"Many of the riders spend their lives in therapy. We're saying we can be kind of a one-stop shop," she said.
The center has changed considerably over the past seven years and Tuel expects the program to continue its evolution.
"We're not locked into any particular concept or philosophy," Tuel said.
"We listen to the riders' input. We need their help so we can be better."
By listening, Tuel and her instructors have learned that the disabled, like most people, aren't satisfied with a life devoid of challenges and risks.
Tuel recalls her reluctance when one student told her that she wanted to learn to canter.
"She said, 'Don't tell me no. Everybody tells me no because I'm handicapped,' " Tuel said. "You can't take away all the risks, but life has risks. They said, 'We want to take some chances along the way.' "