In Sunday's Today section, a photo caption misidentified...


March 09, 1997|By Patricia Meisol

In Sunday's Today section, a photo caption misidentified two people with Courtney O'Neill, whose therapeutic horse-riding center was featured in a Sunday Snapshot. The child shown sitting on the horse with O'Neill is Jeffrey Cumber, 8, and the volunteer at the horse's side is Heather Tidman.

The Sun regrets the error.

Modern minstrel enchants toddlers; Performer: Candy Draksler takes her one-woman shows to day-care centers and other places where youngsters are. She's just put out a video.

When Candy Draksler packs up her teddy bear puppet, Cupcake, after a morning of song and dance, toddlers often break away from their teachers and run to hug her.


To Draksler, it's a reminder that she's doing the right thing.

Her stories and sing-alongs are so popular in the day-care centers where she has appeared regularly for the past three years that teachers sought a video of her performances to entertain kids between her monthly or bimonthly shows. That is how "Candy & Cupcake at the Farm That Needs Fixin' " came to local stores.

The 27-minute video is a deluxe version of Draksler's show about farm where the animals talk. Candy and Cupcake arrive at the farm in a dream and find themselves unraveling a mystery. Daisy barks, but she's a cow! Henrietta, the little red hen, wants help making pizza, peanut butter -- anything but the bread in her fabled story. The source of the cock-a-doodle-dooing they hear is a very pink pig. When Wazu the wizard admits he misplaced his gold-covered book of magic while transporting Candy and Cupcake to Dreamland, the problem is pinpointed.

Draksler, 43, was a music teacher for 20 years before she became a full-time entertainer in 1994. With her students, she was always acting out songs. "I love performing on stage," she says. "I love the reaction I get from kids. That a 2-year-old can sit through an hourlong show -- that to me is the greatest compliment."

Draksler performs twice daily at venues all around the region. Singing popular songs and original creations, the actress graces preschools, day-care centers, (10 are regular customers) schools, birthday parties and fairs.

In each of a dozen stories she has written and set to music, Draksler asks children to sing along with her and to help solve a dilemma or puzzle.

The farm video features Draksler's husband, children and neighbors as puppeteers, musicians and set designers. Written and produced by Draksler, it was directed by Michael Blum Associates of Bel Air. Ten-year-old Carrie Draksler is the voice of Cupcake. The tape is available in local stores or by calling (888) 556-0022.

@ If Mr. Ed were starting out today, he might not have to go into acting. He could hang out a shingle as a therapist.

A horse therapist? Sort of. It's actually called "therapeutic riding," an unconventional but surprisingly long-standing form of occupational and physical therapy that adherents, such as Sykesville's Courtney O'Neill, insist is quite effective for people with a variety of different disabilities.

O'Neill, a lifelong rider, runs one of several therapeutic riding programs in the Baltimore region. Hers, called Bright Vision Therapeutic Riding, is on a picturesque hillside in Hampstead. Her new season will start next week. With four specially trained but far from docile horses and a staff of 15 to 20 volunteers, she expects to be training 50 or more clients by mid-summer.

If the past is a guide, those clients will be between 2 and 45, and they will have a wide range of disabilities, from autism to cerebral palsy to stroke-induced paralysis to hearing or visual impairment.

Two-legged therapists might be hard-pressed to deal with so wide an array of handicaps, but O'Neill, a certified instructor, says that riding therapy can address a variety of needs, both physical and psychological. On a physical level, she says, riding can help build muscle tone, coordination, balance and a general body awareness. But just as important, riding can help a child learn to focus and to develop self-confidence and attachments.

"A horse is a natural enabler," says O'Neill. "Not only do they provide unqualified love, but they are physical enablers. For an individual who can't walk, to be placed on a horse, to have four legs instead of two, to be taller than anyone else, to be able to control not only yourself but this other being, all of that is esteem-building."

Ten years ago, O'Neill was a mortgage lender in Virginia, when she began volunteering in therapeutic riding, which has been practiced for at least 40 years. She found it satisfying, enough so that she got certified as an instructor. A couple years ago, she started Bright Vision in Finksburg, and last year moved it to Hampstead.

The successes, she says, are deeply moving. She talks of a profoundly retarded young man whose control over his body was so tenuous that he would fall down without notice and for no apparent reason. On a horse, though, he learned to remain upright.

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