Five-year-old Caroline Carbaugh, a kindergartener at Colvin Run Elementary School, is blind since birth.
She has a rare retinal disorder called Leber’s congenital amaurosis (LCA), says her father, Bill Carbaugh of Great Falls.
For half a day at school, a vision education specialist helps Caroline learn to read Braille and use a white cane when she walks.
But on Saturdays, she has an hour with Goldie, a rotund, calm pony of the rare miscellaneous breeding that horse enthusiasts describe as “bomb-proof.”
Through Lift Me Up, the therapeutic riding service based in Great Falls, she has been riding for two years.
Two weeks ago, Caroline and Goldie went to Lexington, VA, to compete in a horse show.
“In Caroline’s group, there were seven riders,” said Bill Carbaugh: “two men in their 50s and four kids in the 10 to 15 range.”
Caroline and Goldie placed seventh out of seven: last place.
They won a purple ribbon.
“She likes holding it and feeling it, but if we left without it, I don’t think she would really care,” said her father.
“We were just happy she was able to get up on the horse and compete. She wasn’t aware she was in a competition. She was just riding her horse.
“We didn’t know if she would put up with all this. Kids some times just sort of melt down. The horse got antsy and wanted to start trotting,” he said.
When Caroline was interviewed for this article, she was brief. Asked about Goldie, she said “He doesn’t behave.”
“I said, ‘Stop, Goldie, Stop,’” she said.
“As a young girl, to be able to control an animal three times her size,” has empowered Caroline, her father said.
“One of the things that blind people crave is movement. It is almost a sixth sense that people have. She loves it, whether on a swing or trampoline.”
“It is the movement on the horse she enjoys.
“Her instructor thinks some day she will be able to ride independently,” he said.
That’s what happened to Sam DuPuis, 11, another Lift Me Up client.
“Sam is autistic,” said his mother, Linda DuPuis of Oakton.
“When he was in special ed preschool program at Waples Mill Elementary School, they went on a field trip to Lift Me Up [in Great Falls],” where one of Sam’s teachers was an instructor.
“He screamed bloody murder when he was on the horse the first time, said his mother. “He didn’t want to be up on the horse.”
BUT BY THEN, his mother had read about the therapeutic benefits of horseback riding.
“I knew [Sam] had many issues with sensory integration,” she said.
“I knew how therapeutic riding would improve that, and provide special companionship with an animal.
“At that time, Sam wasn’t interacting with people or animals, either,” she said. It was a year and a half before Sam rode another horse at Lift Me Up’s arena in Great Falls.
He rode Finn, a Norwegian Fjord with a broad back and an easy-to-grab mane.
“Sam loves riding Finn. Once he had the helmet on, he was fine. He enjoys it, and he has gained more and more independence.”
“He loves it,” his mother said. “It is his own special sport,” unique from the soccer and basketball games that occupy his two brothers.
“It is amazing what has happened since that beginning time. He began to talk, and his motor skills have developed.” That is due to many factors, she said, but horseback riding is one of them, she said.
Now, Sam is “mainstreamed” and attends class with other fifth graders at Oakton Elementary School.
Bill Carbaugh, Caroline’s father, said Lift Me Up’s riding lessons have been “a real learning experience” for him and his wife, Lauren.
“We found out about it though [Caroline’s] physical therapist,” who recommended it, he said.
“In her case, she had ‘tactile defensiveness;’ when she touched a different texture, she would pull away.
But now, “She strokes the horse’s hair, and mane, and hooves.
“She had low muscle tone in her upper body,” he said, but the posture required to ride a horse is helping to develop her stomach muscles.
LIFT ME UP, formed 28 years ago by Colleen Zanin of Annandale, plans a “Denim and Diamonds” gala at the Tysons Marriott on Nov. 22. It will raise money to add to a wish fund; Lift Me Up’s board members dream of a day when they can own land and an indoor arena and keep lessons going year-round.
Presently, they use an outdoor arena owned by Flo Dougherty in Great Falls. In inclement weather, lessons are canceled.
“We’ve got a lot of kids on our waiting list, which we hate,” said Lesinski. “We want everyone to be able to ride.”
“We are hoping to acquire land and build an indoor facility, so we can go year-round,” said Connie Kohler, an occupational therapist who is co-chairing the gala.
“If it’s raining, we can’t ride. If it is a red alert day for heat, we can’t ride. And extreme cold affects the continuity for the riders,” she said. “Continuity is so important for the therapeutic benefits.
“Many riders increase or improve, and sometimes [learn to] ambulate for short distances, either on their own, or with a walker.
“There are a lot of sensory benefits for clients who are in the autism spectrum, and children in the ADHD spectrum,” she said.
“The multi-sensory benefit is very important for their ability to become more functional in learning; acquiring new knowledge and being able functionally to put it to use,” said Kohler.
In addition to children, Lift Me Up includes adults on its list of clients.
“Mostly Multiple Sclerosis and mental retardation is the diagnosis for our adults,” Kohler said.
The Nov. 22 fund-raiser includes dinner, casino games, and a silent auction.
Dress is “black tie with cowboy hat;” everyone is supposed to wear something made of denim, said co-chair Heidi Lesinski of Great Falls.
“Men can wear everything from the cummerbund with a tuxedo, or any form of denim: cowboy boots, or a hat,” she said.
“We are hoping people don’t just come casual. We want there to be something formal about their attire,” she said.
Connie Kohler of Oakton, who’s coordinating donations for the silent auction, said items up for bids include a weekend escape to Oasis Vineyard in Rappahannock County, complete with a limo ride and dinner at Griffin Tavern.
Other items include golf packages; restaurant packages from Great Falls Tavern, Sam & Harry’s, Clyde’s, and others; jewelry from Sandy Allison in the Great Falls Shopping Center; a dressage lesson with Kerry Longenecker and a trail ride with Lift Me Up president Georgia Corey in Great Falls National Park.
Lift Me Up, founded 28 years ago by occupational therapist Colleen Zanin, is based in Great Falls, but its clients come from all over Northern Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia, she said.