AT A CREST IN Frederick Road in western Baltimore County, a community of new houses has grown up within the past year. The rural setting and San Francisco-style homes may well justify the developers' claim that this is ''Paradise Hill.'' But for a group of blind children, a couple of teen-agers born with Downs Syndrome, and some senior citizens whose muscles refuse to stay as young as their minds, the real paradise in this part of town is across the street from the new houses, at a place called the Patapsco Horse Center.
More than two years ago, Terry and John Fram bid for and won the right to develop the old Ellerslie Farm, a 201-acre parcel that backs up to the Patapsco State Park. With their own money and immeasurable sweat equity, they have created the Patapsco Horse Center and Maryland Council for Special Equestrians, a place where the patient and steady rhythms of cantering horses perform therapeutic wonders that even the best-trained human hands cannot.
Therapeutic horseback riding, first documented in 1875 Paris, stretches the muscles and the imaginations of children and adults who have physical, mental or emotional disabilities. Guided by trained recreational therapists, participants are trained in horsemanship. At the same time, they learn patience, control, balance and self-confidence. ''You put a disabled kid on a horse, and he's just the same as an able-bodied kid,'' says Terry Fram, the life force of the Patapsco Horse Center. ''Unlike wheelchairs, horses can venture into field and stream, bringing handicapped riders closer to nature. And a kid who can't walk feels the thrill of running when he's on the back of a horse.''
Blind children often have ''tactile intolerance'' -- a fear otouching or being touched by anything new -- and now wonder. Their inquiring young hands have been rudely met by things hot and sharp and dangerous; they rarely reach out with confidence.
Seven-year-old Raven, one of last spring's star riders, falls into this category. She is totally blind, and needed a lot of encouragement from Patapsco Center's volunteers and therapists to ''see'' her horse, Penny, for the first time. But within weeks, her hands learned to recognize Penny's broad, bristly back and wiry mane, and the well-worn leather harness.
The volunteers will never forget the first time instructor NancFoster told the riders to release the reins and reach over their heads. Tiny Raven thrust her hands skyward, and the volunteers exchanged triumphant grins. They know how terrifying that simple move could have been for Raven; the training for those who work with the blind kids includes a blindfolded ride around Patapsco's ring.
The virtually unknown Maryland Council for Special Equestrians surprised many Annapolis veterans by winning a $245,000 state grant last spring. The money will finance the indoor training facility, making the organization's therapeutic horseback riding programs available to riders year 'round. The appropriation was a reward of committed lobbying by the Frams and Baltimore County legislators, and an emotional appeal by James Bready, the former White House press secretary who has used therapeutic horseback riding to aid his recovery from John Hinckley's rampage.
Therapeutic riding is not new to Maryland; there are a dozen small programs scattered around the state, including the one near Washington in which Bready takes part. And Lida McCowan, who wrote the definitive training manual on therapeutic riding for the handicapped, is a Maryland native who no runs the nation's foremost therapeutic riding program, Michigan's Cheff Center.
But when the Maryland Council for Special Equestrians' indoofacilities are completed later next spring, it will be the largest program of its kind in Maryland, serving as many as 150 riders each week. The National Special Olympics has also expressed interest in using the Patapsco Horse Farm for its training programs when the giant demonstration ring is finished.
The program is administered by the Baltimore County Department of Recreation and Parks, under the direction of Don Schlimm, therapeutic recreation services coordinator. The county pays the therapists' salaries and recruits riders. The Frams provide the space, horses, riding rings and equipment.
Schlimm, who also pioneered the county's first barrier-free playground, started a small-scale recreational horseback therapy program in 1985. The classes met at several different county farms and stables, but after three consecutive locations went out of business while hosting it, Schlimm shelved the program until he could find a permanent home. In the spring of 1989, Terry Fram called him.
''If you're lucky, you meet a couple of people during your lifetime who inspire you,'' says Schlimm. ''Terry is one. A lot of people have dreams, but few people have what it takes to fulfill them. No matter how many times she gets knocked down, she just keeps going.''