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Riding Program Helps Those with Disabilities

Learning Through Horses

Bonnie Cummins has never ridden a horse. She has, however, been spending a lot of time around them.

As a volunteer at Morven Park in Leesburg, Cummins spent three sessions assisting with the therapeutic riding program, which uses horses as a way to provide cognitive, physical, emotional and social well-being therapies to people with disabilities. Now the Herndon resident is director of her own start-up program, Therapeutic Riding at Frying Pan Park.

"I've thought about it for a long time," Cummins said of creating the program. "I just really, really wanted to do it. I have three kids at school who wanted to ride."

Cummins is an instructional assistant at Hutchison Elementary School and has spent eight years working with children with special needs. She saw the benefits of therapeutic riding while volunteering in Leesburg and approached officials at Frying Pan Park about doing the same here. After more than a year of planning, finding volunteers and even locating a horse, Cummins said the program is almost ready to begin with its first riders.

MARGARET HYER, also of Herndon, by contrast grew up around horses. She had three as a child and was a member of riding and show jumping clubs. She first met Cummins at church, when Cummins was looking for a volunteer bookkeeper for her program. Hyer is now the program's first certified therapeutic riding instructor.

"Bonnie advertised for an accountant. My husband was an accountant, so I figured I could help out little," Hyer said. "As this progressed, it became apparent this wasn't going to get off the ground without an instructor."

Hyer, a substitute teacher with Fairfax County Public Schools, began volunteering at a similar program called, Lift Me Up, where she also became certified through the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA), often using her daughter, Lauren, who has mild cerebral palsy, as her "guinea pig," she said.

The pair had Alex, an Arabian gray, and some riding equipment donated to them. Cummins is able to boarder Alex on a property next to the park. In addition, a local Adventure Scout troop made colorful signs depicting letters, numbers and shapes that can be attached to fence posts to be used during lessons; and Sterling teen-ager Austin Jeglum organized the building of a wheelchair-accessible mounting ramp as part of his Eagle Scout project. The Sterling Rotary Club chipped in $500 and Office Depot has provided in-kind donations. Lowe's also gave Austin a discount on supplies and use of a truck to get the building materials for the ramp to the park.

"At this point, we already have a waiting list," Cummins said.

THE PROGRAM that will be offered at Frying Pan Park is NARHA certified. It requires a certified instructor and two side walkers for every one rider. The side walkers assist the rider in mounting the horse; and walk along each side of the horse steadying the rider or providing other assistance as needed. Some therapeutic riding programs also incorporate licensed occupational or physical therapists.

Hyer said therapeutic riding provides all sorts of benefits to people with physical, emotional, or learning disabilities.

"The horse is the motivator. We work on flexibility, balance and educational issues," Hyer said. "Almost anything you can do in a classroom, you can do here. Besides, Alex is more fun."

For example, Hyer said therapeutic riding can help her daughter, Lauren, who because of her cerebral palsy, has what is known as a power hand and helper hand, which is weaker. Riding Alex forces Lauren to use her helper hand and builds up the strength in the left side of her body. It also helps with her motor skills. And besides, she enjoys riding.

"It's good. I like it when I say 'whoa' and 'giddy up, Alex,'" Lauren said. "I'm looking forward to taking lessons."

Hyer said therapeutic riding can be used for children and adults who have almost any kind of disability. The lessons will be tailored to each rider according to that rider's needs and most of the lessons are set-up like games. Riders who need to work on balance or motor skills, for example, may work their way up to catching a ball while sitting on Alex. Or those with learning disabilities may be asked to ride over to certain signs attached to the fence posts.

In addition, Alex will be taught to respond to voice commands, so riders can control him without having to use the reins.

"Anyone who has ever rode a horse knows you move," Hyer said. "It simulates walking for people confined to a wheelchair. It's motion they wouldn't get otherwise."

According to the NARHA Web site, (NARHA) "riders with physical disabilities often show improvement in flexibility, balance and muscle strength. For individuals with mental or emotional disabilities, the unique relationship formed with the horse can lead to increased confidence, patience and self-esteem."

FOR THOSE with physical disabilities, the program has a specially created ramp. The rider and a side walker stand on the ramp to mount the horse, while a second side walker stands on a smaller ramp on the other side of the horse. The riding instructor stands in front of the horse, holding the lead and keeping the horse steady.

The ramp was built to NARHA and American with Disabilities Act standards and took Austin and his volunteers, 15 fellow scouts and a couple of adults, four weekends of construction. Austin said overall, the project took almost a year to plan and organize.

"We got the plans from a ramp in California. We had the blueprints e-mailed to us," said Austin, a junior at Dominion High School in Sterling.

The scouts ended up modifying the plans to fit the special needs of the program and built the ramp in modular sections so it can easily be moved. In addition, the pieces can be rearranged to met the needs of the individual riders. The whole thing is reinforced to take the bumps and other wear-and-tear from wheelchairs and the horse.

"Everything ran smooth except on the weekends we where here," Austin said of the actual construction, which took place at Frying Pan Park. "Nobody was here. We didn't know how to turn the lights on. One weekend there was a dog show so we couldn't use glue."

The ramp cost about $11,000 for materials, all of which was paid for through donations and Austin's own pocket. Lowe's provided a 25 percent discount for the wood, lowering its cost to $800. Austin handed over the finished ramp to Cummins last week.

"I'm glad it worked out," he said.