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Riding Benefits Students with Special Needs

Simple Changes Inc. gives lessons at Meadowood.

Rolfie Butters and Megan Colligan can barely walk, but they can both ride a horse. Thanks to coordinators Corliss Wallingford and Jenny Spain, these children, and others with special needs, experience the benefits of therapeutic horseback riding.

"Our mission is to enrich the lives of individuals with disabilities, their families and community through high-quality therapeutic programs, especially therapeutic horsemanship," said Corliss Wallingford, co-founder of Simple Changes, Inc. “Finally, we’ve found something that meets their needs.”

These programs are in so much demand that for the past three months, Rolf and Rolfie Butters have driven from their home in Gaithersburg, Md. to Mason Neck, Va. Their destination? The Stables at Meadowood. Their goal? To give Rolfie the opportunity to work with the staff and volunteers of Simple Changes Inc., a therapeutic riding program operating out of Meadowood. The stable gives lessons three times a week to more than 20 students with special needs.

Kristi Hellmuth, horseback rider and supporter of the program, said, “This program provides individuals with and without disabilities the opportunity to learn from horses and each other. Most of the current participants come from Northern Virginia and have a variety of disabilities including autism, genetic syndromes, cerebral palsy and traumatic brain injury. Simple Changes is a community of support for those who need it most.

“It has been shown in scientific studies that therapeutic riding benefits the body, mind and spirit. Physical benefits include improved muscle tone, gait, balance and posture. Cognitive skills are improved by lessons that include following directions and sequencing during riding activities. Riders’ spirits are buoyed as they experience independent movement, build confidence and make new friends — both equine and human.

“Every week, Simple Changes enlists the help of more than 25 volunteers from the community in order to make their lesson schedule successful. This program is fueled by volunteer energy, with some riders needing as many as three volunteer assistants for a single lesson. More than 500 total hours per month are logged by the faithful volunteers — volunteers from all walks of life — teenagers, parents, horse people, and community leaders.”

WALLINGFORD AND SPAIN staff the program; everybody else is a volunteer. They have volunteers of all ages — from middle school students to seniors. Kristi Hellmuth’s daughter, Lindsey Hellmuth, is one of those volunteers. “I volunteer everyday I can. It’s so rewarding — all the kids have their favorite [horse],” Lindsay said.

Another volunteer, Sandy Nail, said, “I love riding. I think it is great exercise for these kids. It gives them confidence; they build up strength and they have fun.”

“We work with all different kinds of handicaps,” Wallingford said. Colligan, who is Wallingford’s daughter, has Angelman’s Syndrome, a rare neuro-genetic disorder characterized by severe intellectual disability, speech impediment, sleep disturbance, unstable jerky gait and seizures. These children usually have a happy demeanor, which is evident by the smile on Colligan’s face — especially when she is riding. Wallingford said that her daughter started riding when she was 4 years old. She couldn’t walk at all; now, she can walk with assistance.

“For her, being on a horse gives her that same motion over and over,” Wallingford said. “She had low body tone and riding helped with trunk stability. It’s been the best thing for her.”

WALLINGFORD HELPED start the program at Meadowood because she knew this part of the county didn’t have such services. They have been booked since they started giving lessons in April.

Rolf Butters, father of Rolfie Butters, said that all the programs near him in Maryland were booked so he was glad to get a space down here.

“They’re doing a great job,” Butters said. “The first time we came, Rolfie fussed the whole time. He fusses less each time and can hold himself up longer. It strengthens his muscles and gives him more strength and stamina.”

Jordan Daze, a 14-year-old student at Frost Middle School, has Charge’s Syndrome. This disease causes poor motor skills and balance. She started riding when she was 6 years old. She can now ride independently, without side walkers, volunteers who walk on either side of the student when riding.

“What I love about therapeutic riding is that it meets riders wherever they are,” said Beverly Baughman, Jordan’s mother.

“These kids really look forward to it,” Wallingford said. “Just to see the smiles on their faces is worth it.”