Horseback riding program is therapy for disabled

June 05, 1994|By Amy L. Miller | Amy L. Miller,Sun Staff Writer

Circling the show ring, the student slowly guides her horse through the dressage test, moving smoothly from a working walk to a working trot and back again.

"Shorten your reins!" her instructor shouts as she rides. "Be strong in the saddle! Don't be a sack of potatoes!"

At first glance, no one could tell this student is different from any other youngster putting her horse through the paces in a dressage competition.

But, instructors say, that's the beauty of Carroll County's Therapeutic Riding Program.

The girl on the horse is one of the current crop of 48 students -- mostly children, and some adults -- who came to the program to improve self-esteem, to gain physical flexibility and balance, and to participate in a competitive sport. The program is a 4-H offering for people who have physical, mental or emotional disabilities.

"Horseback riding is a great equalizer," said instructor Karen Scott. "You could have someone who is ambulatory, walks with braces or uses a wheelchair, and you don't know the difference."

Now, after 16 years, the program, which has been using an outdoor ring at the Carroll County Ag Center in Westminster, is seeking a home of its own. Its coordinators have started a building fund and are planning to open a new facility at the Ag Center by the fall of 1995.

"We're due," Ms. Scott said of the program, which has a long waiting list. The new facility would allow the group to eliminate the waiting list and to ride regardless of the weather, she said.

"We've been waiting a long time for this," Ms. Scott said, noting that many of the group's practices this spring were washed out by rain.

The building's exact dimensions will be determined by how much money is raised, said Bob Shirley, a Carroll County extension agent who works with the program. But the Ag Center's board members have said the building must be at least 150 feet by 250 feet for their purposes.

Mr. Shirley said the general terms of a lease for the proposed building were completed last week with the Ag Center's advisory board.

Therapeutic riding classes will have first choice of times in the building. The classes probably will meet twice a week and on weekends when necessary, Mr. Shirley said.

Classes have been meeting from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. this session, from April until early this month, Mr. Shirley said. They often end earlier during the fall session, from September through the early part of October, he said.

"It gets too dark and too cold" for longer classes, Mr. Shirley said of the winter term.

The program stops in the summer because the weather is too hot for the children and animals, and because the horses have eaten most of the grass in the Farm Museum's pasture by then, Ms. Scott said.

All of the horses used in the program -- primarily retired show horses, hunters or teaching animals -- have been donated or lent to the program, Ms. Scott said.

When not in use by the therapeutic program, the proposed facility would be rented for events such as cattle shows, recreational vehicle shows or antique car exhibits, and would be used during the county fair, he said.

"It will be used in any way, shape or form that doesn't interfere with our program," Mr. Shirley said. "We'd like to have winter indoor horse shows, which would be one way to continue to raise money for therapeutic riding." Grants and donations from foundations will be the main source of money for the project, Mr. Shirley said. The group will sponsor fund-raisers and donation drives to help raise the $250,000 building fund, he said.

For example, the group intends to sponsor another dressage and jumping clinic with Torrance Watkins, a team gold medal winner in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. A similar clinic last winter, in which participants were to pay $85 per day to train with the nationally renowned rider, was canceled because of ice, Mr. Shirley said.

"That event would have raised several thousand dollars," he said.

If the group collects more than $250,000, it will be able to incorporate some "dreams" into the project, Mr. Shirley said.

"We'd like to have a classroom with a large window to the arena," he said, so "students could see a group riding and learn that way."

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