Horseback therapy gets a boost

$250,000 grant will enable Maryland Therapeutic Riding to purchase 25 acres in Crownsville


Stephanie Pippen was running out of hope.

Her son, Max, who suffers from epilepsy and a rare genetic condition that weakens his muscles, was 3 years old and could barely walk. He was seeing a physical therapist, but it wasn't helping.

Pippen read about Maryland Therapeutic Riding, a Crownsville organization that offers physical and mental therapy through riding and interacting with horses, and figured she'd try it with Max.

After two hours on horseback, Max was running across uneven surfaces. Later that year, he was standing up on horseback.

"This is a kid who could barely walk, and they had him surfing a horse," Pippen, a Linthicum Heights resident, says of her son, now 5.

Pippen's infant daughter has the same condition, but now Pippen knows what to do. "My daughter's going to be riding as soon as she turns 2," she says. "Forget everything else. At least I know where to go now."

The good news for Pippen and about 180 others whom the program serves is that Maryland Therapeutic Riding is here to stay, thanks to a $250,000 grant from the France-Merrick Foundation that will enable the organization to buy its 25-acre section of Arden Farms.

The foundation, which awards grants statewide to further education, community development, cultural preservation and conservation, provided the grant after learning that Maryland Therapeutic Riding had an opportunity to buy the land at 20 percent of its appraised value, says Robert Schaefer, France-Merrick's executive director.

"They do a fine job in treating their clients," Schaefer says. "They've had a lot of success, and it's important that they have a permanent home."

The Maryland Therapeutic Riding staff couldn't agree more.

"It really just launches us to a new level," says development director Betsy Kimrey. "You know, we've been here for 10 years, but this takes it one step further."

Owning the farm means the organization can move forward with plans to build a $275,000 indoor arena, to be funded by the state and donors. The arena will allow therapy sessions to continue regardless of the weather or time of day, says development associate Shannon Morton. Lessons can't be held at night, and many riders with disabilities can't regulate their body temperature well, forcing lesson cancellations if the weather is too hot or too cold, Morton says.

And eventually, Maryland Therapeutic Riding officials say, they hope to expand the organization, adding more programs, horses, staff, volunteers and participants

"We've started thinking, `What else can we provide?'" Kimrey says.

Nine paid staff members and therapists work with 11 trained horses and more than 100 volunteers to offer two types of therapy to the disabled, mostly children: therapeutic riding, or learning to ride a horse as therapy, and hippotherapy, or professional therapy on horseback.

Sitting astride a horse gives riders the physical strength and balance they need to control their bodies, says therapeutic services director Beverly Willard. The exciting new experience of interacting with a horse can also help mentally disabled clients communicate better, she says.

"It really can help all systems of the body, from thinking skills to motor and physical skills to communication, behavior, emotional sense," Willard says.

The results, parents and staffers say, can be astonishing.

There's Max, who runs, jumps, somersaults and monkeys around on banisters like the rest of his peers. There's a 2-year-old girl, developmentally delayed, who gained head and neck control for the first time in her life during the spring riding session, Kimrey says.

And during a recent day, Willard stands amid children riding, eating or making crafts at the farm's annual weeklong camp and happily reports that a chronically terrified 5-year-old with learning disabilities has just let go of the saddle and achieved a trot during his second time on a horse.

Willard, who doubles as a "traditional" physical therapist, says the everyday successes are among the many reasons she and her colleagues love working at Maryland Therapeutic Riding.

"We really do see miracles happen all the time," she says. "There's not a lot of times I did therapy in the past where kids seem to be smiling and laughing and having so much fun doing it."

Maryland Therapeutic Riding began in 1996 with one horse, a handful of riders and one person, Naomi Parry, overseeing it all.

Parry, then living in Severna Park, had broken her back and pelvis in a car accident as a teenager, says David Parry, her husband and the head of Maryland Therapeutic Riding's board of directors.

"She had a good understanding of how riding horses helped heal your body," he says of his wife, a former competitive rider.

David Parry says he is grateful to the France-Merrick Foundation for giving his organization a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

"Healing people with horses is the best thing that Naomi and I have ever done, and it's our life purpose," he

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