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Healing Horses

Equine therapy organization in Great Falls provides special needs riders independence

Cameron Graham is no shrinking violet.

Every Saturday, she excitedly gathers her equipment, gets her riding gear and rushes her mother, Ellen, into their car and off to Great Falls in time for her weekly riding session at Lift Me Up.

“She goes early and stays late at her lessons,” Ellen Graham said. “She’ll go out of her way to buy carrots for the horses.”

Cameron is a student at Lift Me Up, a equine therapy organization in Great Falls that provides a different kind of treatment for riders as young as three who have disabilities.

Born with water on the brain, Cameron, a student at Langley High School, has long-term brain damage but is one of the higher-functioning students at Lift Me Up, Graham said. “Participating in Lift Me Up has opened her up to opportunities she wouldn’t have otherwise had,” she said.

Lift Me Up was started in 1975 by Collene Zanin, a lifelong horse lover and riding instructor who began working with horses at the ripe old age of 8 years old.

“During college, I worked as a riding instructor at a camp for disabled children,” Zanin said. “I was impressed by how alive and engaged the children were by interacting with the horses and how tuned in to the environment they were when they were on the horses.”

She hoped to combine her love of horses with her passion for therapy and was included in a group of therapists on a trip to Europe, where hippotherapy, as it is called, had been used for decades.

The basic theory behind hippotherapy, Zanin said, is that the motion of the horse closely mirrors the movement of a person’s spine and pelvic joints, thereby loosening the rider and improving upper-body strength and muscle tone.

“When I started, horse riding was strictly recreational and social,” she said. “The riders would go home from camp, and parents and teachers would notice the balance and joint mobility was improved from their riding lesson.” Riders would take short trail rides without any real instruction, guided by volunteers and handlers to keep the horse controllable and maintain the rider’s comfort, she said.

“Riding is therapy,” she said. “It’s geared toward every individual and uses the horse’s movement as a stimulus for change.”

Lift Me Up is a combination of two practices: Hippotherapy, using the horse’s body and motion to stretch and relax muscles; and therapeutic riding to gain muscle tone, control and upper-body strength.

“It’s so effective,” Zanin said. “The horses are so charismatic, you can get a much greater response from the riders. You can see the riders become more relaxed.”

IN SOME CHILDREN with cerebral palsy or other neurological disorders, she said, “typically their muscles are stiff, but with the horse’s movement and warmth and the position of the rider on the horse, their muscles can relax and open up, and you can see an improvement in their posture,” she said. “Their back and stomach muscles get stronger. For some riders, this is the first time they’ve been able to sit upright unsupported.”

Skeptical parents have their concerns relieved by the end of the first lesson, Zanin said. “With some riders, you can see an improvement within 20 minutes.”

Katie Fallon, one of Lift Me Up’s therapeutic riding instructors, said the staff has to be certified by the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association in order to work with the riders.

“The program has grown dramatically over the years, from starting with private lessons conducted by occupational therapists into what we have today,” Fallon said.

Some riders benefit simply from feeling the different textures involved in horseback riding — feeling the body of the horse, the leather of the saddle, the softness of the saddle blanket, the wind on their faces as they ride.

“For so many riders, it’s just a fun thing to do,” she said. “It gives them a feeling of pride and satisfaction. They don’t know they’re getting therapy. They’re just having fun.”

A nonprofit organization, Lift Me Up relies heavily on volunteers and the open hearts of the community.

“The support of Great Falls Newcomers has been invaluable. They’re a great source of volunteers, and recently they raised and donated $10,000 to adopt Valentine and pay for his upkeep,” she said. “School groups come out on occasion and help to clean up or paint the barns.”

The biggest partnership Lift Me Up has is also the longest: The organization is literally in the front yard of Flo and Harry Dougherty on Georgetown Pike.

“They help us care for the horses. They let us use their land. Otherwise, we would not have been able to keep this program going,” Fallon said.

“We’re just happy to have the space here for them to use,” Flo Dougherty said. “This land has been in my mother’s family since 1869. She was born and raised in the farmhouse that my daughter now lives in.”

Dougherty and Zanin were friends and roommates for a while prior to the start of Lift Me Up, she said, and when the program needed a place to call home while Zanin went overseas with her husband’s military assignment, Dougherty and her husband offered their space.

“We didn’t have any designated riding areas at the time, but Great Falls didn’t look the way it does now,” she said. “This place has changed a lot since they’ve been here.”

Currently, Dougherty offers her time and skills to act as office administrator for Lift Me Up, while her husband uses his ability as an accountant to help keep their books and records in order, she said.

Their two children, now adults, grew up around the program. “Wendy has volunteered over the years. She’s always loved horses,” she said. “We’ve all had our hands in it from time to time.”

THE DOUGHERTYS will continue to host the riders and their horses “as long as they need to. It is their dream to have their own facility though,” she said.

Lift Me Up has use of the Dougherty’s two barns, two pastures and a utility shed that serves as an office, but it lacks an indoor riding facility, which limits the organization’s lessons to decent weather.

“We’d like to obtain a facility of our own with a covered arena because we are weather-dependent,” Fallon said. “In past years we’ve had to stop giving lessons during the winter. It’s difficult for an organization that depends so much on the money we receive for lessons to pay for maintaining the horses to stand still in the winter.”

As word of Lift Me Up trickles through the community, a waiting list has developed and grown, Fallon said. Currently, it may take a new rider three years to take his or her first lesson.

“We’ve tried to add instructors and volunteers to open the program up to more people, but the horses can only work so long under NARHA regulations,” she said. Lessons typically last 45 minutes and are given six days a week, with Fridays off for rest.

Fallon, in addition to being an instructor, has seen the benefits of the program in her own family.

“My daughter has congenital hydroencephalitis, or water on the brain, which is a malformation of the brain stem,” she said. “She’s been in various types of therapy for four years. I first became involved here after she was born, and it’s been an incredible source of healing for our family and for her.”

Now a preschooler in McLean, the little girl has a difficult time speaking but is “functional in terms of balance and motor skills,” so riding lessons have helped her improve in those areas.

“One of the first words she said was Finn, which is the name of one of our horses,” Fallon said. “These riders will do whatever it takes to get on a horse, they love it so much.”

Caroline Carbaugh, 7, is blind but loves the sensation of motion.

“We’d heard about therapeutic riding and were put on the waiting list when she was 3,” said her father, Bill Carbaugh. “We knew there was a long list, and we thought we’d get her on it early. She’s been riding for about three years now.”

Initially, Caroline also had what her father called “tactile defensiveness,” meaning she had anxiety with different sensations and textures and going from one to another.

“We needed to give her a big bucket of beans and get her to dig into it, which was not easy,” he said.

Additionally, her muscle tone was lacking and she did not have a lot of upper-body strength, but she craved motion and the feeling of movement.

When she first started at Lift Me Up, the lessons began with having Caroline run her hands on the horse, feeling its mane, tail, legs, torso, face, everything.

“It wasn’t that she was frightened by how the horse felt, but at first all the different textures of the horse confused her,” he said.

“She loves being on the horse. When she’s up there, that movement and having to sit upright helps her with body control, which has improved her muscles,” Carbaugh said. “Our hope is that one day she’ll be able to ride independently.”

SPENDING OVER an hour a week around horses has taught him a great deal as well. “I’ve learned more about horses in the past few years,” he said with a laugh.

The opportunity for his daughter to have an activity of her own instead of always sitting on the sidelines of her brother’s soccer games is tremendous, he said. “This is a chance for the family to come out and cheer for these riders, instead of them always doing the cheering,” he said. “It’s a very nice change.”

Carbaugh is also the volunteer coordinator and president of the board of directors for Lift Me Up, trying to increase the number of riders on horses to whatever degree possible.

“We have the use of an additional riding ring, which allows us to have group lessons, so we’ve been able to increase the ridership a little,” he said. “We’d still love to have an indoor ring.”

Despite currently serving about 60 students, the waiting list holds about the same number of people waiting to ride.

“We have riders from across the Northern Virginia community, from McLean and Great Falls and Mount Vernon. We have a few from Montgomery County as well,” he said.

Only about one-third of the funding for Lift Me Up comes from the fees charged to riders for their lessons. “Our budget is in the neighborhood of $100,000 per year,” he said. “The rest of it comes from donations and contributions. It takes a lot of effort and fundraising to pay that off.”

Back inside the white-fenced lesson area, Cameron is having a little problem adjusting the stirrup on Traveler’s saddle.

“It won’t move,” she said, taking a little break and waiting for Fallon to come help her loosen the strap before starting to walk around the ring.

Her mom stands outside, watching her daughter maneuver on the horse as though she were born to ride.

“For a lot of these kids, this is the only thing they can do,” Ellen Graham said. “Because she rode all of last year, she was able to go to a horseback-riding camp last summer at the Madera school. Without these lessons, she never would’ve been able to do that.”

For many children, the lessons at Lift Me Up provide opportunities that were unimaginable.

“For kids who are really physically handicapped, you can do Special Olympics baseball, but someone needs to push them in their wheelchairs,” she said. “Here, this is something they can look forward to because it gives them a sense of accomplishment. They’re up there alone on the horse themselves. There may be a side walker or two making sure they’re OK, but they’re up there.”

There is also a social aspect to the lessons, introducing the riders to other people they may not otherwise meet.

“As a result of her lessons, Cameron knows a lot of the volunteers that go to Langley with her,” Graham said. “Many of these kids don’t get to meet a lot of regular kids, but now she can walk down the hall at school and she’ll know people. This program has so many facets. It provides a much-needed opportunity for kids with special needs and regular kids too.”

Cameron always brings treats for the horses and has recently been allowed to help groom the horse before and after lessons, Graham said, which made her very happy.

“She’s able to lift up the horse’s legs and clean his hooves,” she said. “That teaches her responsibility and makes her think about doing things in sequence, which otherwise she wouldn’t have a reason or way to learn it.”

A few weeks ago, during one rainy Saturday lesson, Cameron and Fallon decided to ride in the rain and came back thoroughly soaked.

“She absolutely loved it. It didn’t matter that she was drenched,” Graham said, laughing. “She feels like Traveler is her horse, and she wanted to ride him.”

This is Lift Me Up’s 30th anniversary, which will be commemorated with a large gala event in November. There will also be a ride-a-thon on June 12 starting at 10 a.m. on a farm in Loudoun County that is used by the Fairfax Hunt Club, she said. Riders must bring their own horse with current Coggins certification, and a walking trail will also be available for those who wish to take a more leisurely ride. More information is available by calling Georgia Corey at Lift Me Up’s office, 703-759-6221.