Special School Puts Riders In Saddle

Wild Horses Couldn't Drag Students Away

December 16, 1990|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Staff writer

GAMBER - Riding a horse reaches Aspiring Heights under the tutelage of JoAnn T. Robertson.

The 39-year-old mother of three teaches the sport to about 50 students a week on her farm, named after her desire to inspire.

"I want to inspire my riders, to make them aspire to great heights," she said. "A friend and I came up with the name for my school after kicking around those concepts."

Riding and Robertson have helped several students rise above physical and emotional problems.

"Riding gives everyone a shot of self-confidence and self-esteem," she said. "It offers handicapped people the opportunity to do something different, to master a skill as well as, and sometimes better than, anyone else."

Robyn A. Hughes, 16, a visually impaired student, met Robertson 12 years ago, when she participated in the county's Therapeutic Riding Program, which Robertson instituted along with 4-H extension agent Bob Shirley.

Shirley remains active in the program.

When Robertson opened her own riding academy five years ago, Hughes was among the first to enroll and said she wouldn't study anywhere else.

"When I have had a really hard day at school, I go riding," said the South Carroll High junior. "In addition to my sight problems, I have a learning disability, too. But, I know if I can accomplish riding skills, I can do anything."

Hughes, a victim of congenital glaucoma, has participated in Special Olympics horse shows. She recently started jumping on horseback, with the help of her teacher.

"What most people can see at 200 feet, I see at about 10 feet," she said. "I can't see what's ahead of me, but JoAnn tells me when the jumps are coming."

Robertson's teaching philosophy is to push her students to the limits of their abilities, she said. The "sense of accomplishment" always has a positive effect.

A lifelong interest in horses began in early childhood, as Robertson grew up on a New Windsor farm that her parents, R. Guy and Pearl Thompson, still operate. An active member of 4-H in her youth and later a volunteer, she is a Maryland 4-H All Star.

After graduating from Francis Scott Key High School, she studied family management and community development at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Her enthusiasm for all things equine prompted her to take an internship in horse management and horsemanship at the Potomac Horse Center in Montgomery County. She followed that with an intense course in therapeutic horsemanship at the Cheff Center for Therapeutic Riding in Michigan.

"That course pulled it all together for me," she said. "It gave me the hands-on knowledge and the book work I needed to start teaching on my own."

She was teaching equitation at several private Baltimore County schools when she and her former husband bought their ranch here. When they moved in, about 14 years ago, the property was the "farthest thing" from a riding academy, she said.

But she was sold on the area, which backs up to Morgan Run and offers what she calls the most beautiful riding in the county.

"When you are surrounded by 1,500 acres, you can take a good hack in the woods any time," she said.

Eventually, the farm began to match Robertson's vision. She added fencing, two horse barns, several implement sheds and, eventually, an indoor arena.

After her three sons were born, the demands of motherhood and the need to be home more led to the creation of Aspiring Heights.

All the Robertson boys help their mother around the farm. Kirk, 11, is the most dedicated horseman right now, his mother said. He has even accompanied her on fox hunts.

Anyone who enjoys the outdoors will take to the sport, she said. Women ride for exercise and socializing, and children ride because they love it, she said. Her students range in age.

"A 59-year-old lady just started lessons last spring and she's dynamite," she said.

Another student, Pamela Hasson, 31, overheard Robertson talking about her horses at a food store one day and asked if she could see the farm.

"Riding was something I always wanted to learn," she said. Aspiring Heights is "like coming home."

Upon viewing the "healthy, clean atmosphere" and the well-behaved horses last May, she said, she signed up for lessons.

She added that even a casual observer could tell how much Robertson enjoys teaching and helping her students reach their goals.

Riding provides Hasson with a brief escape from the demands of her 2 -year-old son.

"I don't have to be a wife or a mommy," she said. "Riding is just a wonderful way to relax. I wish I had time to do it more than once a week."

Robertson offers group lessons to students of the same age and ability, as well as private and semiprivate lessons, always insisting on proper dress, equipment and protective headgear.

"Sloppy dress, like jeans and tennis shoes, doesn't do anything for anyone," she said. "Riders will have more respect for themselves and the sport if they use the right equipment."

When Aileen Lisko, 30, wanted to put her daughter, Ashley, 6, on a horse, she said she found an ideal teacher in Robertson.

"Jo doesn't push the kids," said Lisko, who started riding when she was a child. "Ashley didn't want to get on the first time out. JoAnn just talked to her, showed her around and invited her back."

Ashley has since become so enthusiastic about her new sport that her parents are thinking about buying her a pony.

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