4-H opens Therapeutic Riding Program arena Lessons: Facilitators plan to expand lessons for disabled students now that foul weather, darkness have been negated by indoor riding ring.

October 19, 1997|By Judith Green | Judith Green,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It took a little longer and cost a little more than planned, but the 4-H Therapeutic Riding Program's indoor arena has its official opening today.

The riding ring at the Carroll County Agricultural Center will allow the program to hold riding lessons almost nine months a year. Until now, its classes for the physically and emotionally disabled were limited by weather and daylight.

"Always before, we had to stop when Daylight Saving Time was over. It got too dark!" said Bob Shirley, 4-H cooperative extension agent for the county and founder of the therapeutic riding program.

With the enclosed riding ring, the program -- which has a waiting list -- plans to expand. Shirley said lessons will be held until Thanksgiving and resume as early as March.

The only hitch may be the weather.

"Since we built the building, it hasn't rained," said Shirley. "So we have no idea whether it'll leak."

A former Smith and Reifsnider Lumber Co. warehouse on John Street in Westminster, the building was purchased by the 4-H for $20,000 last fall. The lumber company sold the property to the Westminster Volunteer Fire Department, and it had to be cleared by Nov. 1 for a new firehouse.

So the 4-H tore down the warehouse and moved it in pieces to the Ag Center. There the piles of sheet metal and fiberglass roofing sections remained during the winter.

A $15,000 grant from the United Way spurred reassembly. The cost was estimated at $60,000, but the project ended up costing more than $100,000, including $12,000 in excavation costs.

But Shirley estimated that a new building would have cost $250,000.

Donated work by the structural engineer and the excavator, as well as an electrical contractor whose child rides in the program, helped keep costs down.

Shirley said the "honors list" of contributors includes some 25 "Golden Clover" donors and more than 100 people and businesses "that have done something for us one way or another.

"We received donations as small as $10," he said.

The riding program began in 1978, at that time one of about 40 in the United States. Today there are more than 500 therapeutic riding centers across the country, and a growing body of research that confirms its benefits.

"I've always believed that horses are really good for kids, and twice as good for disabled kids," said Mary Shunk of Hampstead, who works for Bell Atlantic Corp. in Hunt Valley. She has taught therapeutic riding for more than a dozen years in the Carroll program.

Carroll County's clients range from children as young as 2, who ride ponies, to adults.

They may be mentally, physically or emotionally disabled, learning disabled or developmentally delayed.

The riders include some with multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy and spina bifida, as well as some short-term users recovering from the trauma of auto accidents. They are referred to the program by doctors, physical therapists and school counselors.

There are about 50 riders enrolled who pay a registration fee of $30 -- waived for those who can't afford it -- for six weeks of lessons. Riders are grouped by ability, with no more than five to a group.

Shunk recounts the experience of one 5-year-old boy with such severe neurological disorders that he could not walk or even sit up unassisted when he first was brought to the center.

"He took one of our six-week sessions and then another," she said, "and by that time his balance was so much improved that both his mother and his physical therapist noticed it."

At first, she said, another rider sat behind to support the child. "Now he's sitting on a pony by himself." And after a summer of extra riding lessons at Shunk's home, the boy was using a walker.

Each rider in the program is attended by at least one volunteer, and sometimes by as many as three, depending on their needs.

The program has about 100 volunteers, including many teen-agers who are able to bank their time toward the state's community-service requirement.

"They get as much out of the program as our riders do," Shirley said. "For many, it's the first time they've met someone with a disability and learned that it's a person with wants and needs of his own.

"Working with the program has influenced many of our young people's career choices. Some have gone into physical therapy or counseling. And a lot of them decide to take sign language in school."

The horses -- the program has about a dozen -- are often donated by riding stables when they get old.

"They can't work that hard anymore," Shirley said, "but they work hard enough for us."

For them, the new indoor ring has a special benefit. Thanks to a donation from Footings Unlimited, the track is made of shredded rubber tires and sneakers, mixed with sand.

"It's much kinder to our old horses' feet and legs," Shirley said.

The 4-H Therapeutic Riding Program will hold an open house from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. today at its indoor arena at the Carroll County Agricultural Center on Smith Avenue (extended) in Westminster. The event includes riding demonstrations and light refreshments, as well as a dedication ceremony. Information: 410-848-4611.

Pub Date: 10/19/97

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