Where disabled kids learn what they can do

Therapeutic riding teaches pride and self-esteem

August 14, 2008|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN REPORTER

For nearly an hour each week, children who have disabilities and cannot easily communicate take delight in commanding a 1,100-pound horse to go, canter and stop.

They sit tall and ride proudly, usually with a smile, as their horses trot around a show ring on a farm near Bel Air. Safety demands that the young equestrians in the Chesapeake Therapeutic Riding Program be surrounded by side-walkers and trainers during their riding lessons, but they are in the saddle, and they hold the reins.

Andy Belt of Towson brings his 4-year-old son Gus to the stables every Saturday. Gus has autism and does not speak, but he uses touch commands to guide his horse. The boy frequently rests his head on the horse's mane and gently pats the animal.

"It is huge for him to reach out like this," Belt said. "This helps with everything. It shows him what he can do. There are no boundaries, and he is smiling from ear to ear. He uses the same sign language that he uses in his regular education program."

The all-volunteer Chesapeake Therapeutic Riding Program has been sharing its space at the Cool Springs horse farm with others since its inception nearly four years ago, but that soon will change.

The program is moving in September to the 10-acre Tuckaway Farm near Darlington, where it will be the sole tenant and where the volunteers will be able to offer lessons to more children during longer hours of operation. About 10 children participate in the program, and about 55 are on a waiting list.

The riding group, which started with one horse and one instructor, now has 35 volunteers and four horses, one of which is arthritic and vision-impaired and offers its own lessons in coping with disability. The larger facility will provide a home base for the program and stables for up to 10 horses, all trained to assist disabled riders.

"It means we can operate a full-time equestrian facility," said Cathy Schmidt, the founder and executive director, and a registered therapeutic instructor. "We know there are special-needs children out there who could benefit from time outdoors with an animal. We can help them, using a dynamic mobile surface - a horse."

Barbara Yost, communications coordinator for the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association, based in Denver, said people have much to learn from horses, herd animals with an innate ability to "size up a situation and respond appropriately."

"Horses are experts in reading the body language of their herd," Yost said. "With a horse, people who feel disempowered by whatever challenges can regain a sense of strength and power. The gait of a horse is steady and can help the rider strengthen muscles. Riding helps with balance. Learning to direct a horse by voice or other communication can help a rider with his own ability and mobility issues."

Parents of riders in the Chesapeake program say therapeutic riding has improved their children's lives. The 45-minute lesson costs $60, but financial assistance is available to those who cannot afford the program.

Sean Gerwig, 5, has been riding since he was 3 years old. Adopted as an infant from a Russian orphanage, Sean copes with fetal alcohol syndrome and hearing impairment. The first time he indicated that he knew his letters was when he stopped on command at the letter "A," posted on the wall of the ring, and then at the letter "L," said his mother, Marie Gerwig of Abingdon.

"Riding is great for him," she said. "It helps him stay focused. He really has come so far and done so much here. He brings what he has learned in school here."

Vicki Van Beek, 11, has mastered several maneuvers on horseback, including half-circles and a figure eight around barrels. An attention-deficit disorder makes it difficult for her to keep up with classmates, but when Vicki rides, she is "Miss Independent," said her father, Rick Van Beek of Bel Air.

"This gives her self-esteem and pride, and encourages independence," Van Beek said. "She leads the horse with no fear. She is not coordinated enough to play sports, but she can handle a horse. I hear her talking with her friends about Saturdays with her horse."

Donald L. Avery, board member, instructor, volunteer and sometime beneficiary of the program - riding relieves his arthritis - said participants "are moving and finding opportunities they could not see as available to them before. This benefits physical and emotional needs and helps release the boundaries we put on ourselves."

Schmidt said she hopes to include disabled veterans in the expanded program.

Mary Jo Beckman, a volunteer instructor for the Army's Caisson Platoon therapeutic riding program, said she has paired recovering veterans, most of them amputees at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, with horses that perform military honors at Arlington Cemetery.

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