Six-year-old Molly Appold has a hard time performing at horse shows.
Carey Appold, of Catonsville, said her daughter, who has been diagnosed with autism, could spend a year preparing for a show, but when she knows there's an audience, she calls off her performance.
There wasn't a huge crowd at the Maryland Council for Special Equestrians 2012 show this past weekend, so for Molly, Saturday was the day.
The June 9 show featured performances by about 15 children and teens with disabilities, who rode their horse through and around obstacles in the course, showing off what they have practiced.
"Each obstacle has really been something that they've had to learn with steering, directional, certain positions," said Tina Wehland, program coordinator and a therapeutic riding instructor with Maryland Council for Special Equestrians.
Wehland said the students had been training all spring for the show.
"Therapeutic riding is very beneficial in many ways," she said.
"It helps with muscle tone and balance, but it also helps with things you may not think about, with processing directions, behavior," she said. "You have to be really gentle with the horses."
The Maryland Council for Special Equestrians was founded in 1988 and operates out of the 201-acre Patapsco Horse Center on Frederick Road in Catonsville. The nonprofit is also affiliated with the Baltimore County Recreation and Parks Therapeutic Recreation Division.
The horses in the program are a good deal older than the ones you'd see racing at Pimlico, and therefore more calm and composed. More mature horses are needed to be able to handle young riders who can be loud and unpredictable with their movements, according to Linda Doering, one of the horse caretakers.
Some of the horses are as old as 25, Doering said.
For extra safety during lessons as well as during the show, the students on horseback are guided by two side walkers, who are typically instructors, and a leader — many of whom are teenage volunteers.
Carey Appold helped to guide Molly on Lil Bit, as a side walker, through the obstacles.
The proud mom even got to drape the medal Molly won around her daughter's neck while her father, Bill, stood up against the fence, filming the action on an iPad.
"We were prepared this morning to kind of push her through getting on the horse, and she was anxious," Carey said. "Then she got on the horse, calmed down, rode, had a good time."
Molly has regressive autism, her mother said, which occurs when children appear to develop normally, then regress around age 1 or 2.
When she regressed due to the autism, she began to fear animals, her mother said.
But since working with the Maryland Council for Special Equestrians, that fear has subsided.
"Her communication is so much better when she's riding the horse," Carey Appold said. "Now she comes here and it's one of her favorite things to do every week."
Wehland doesn't know exactly why the horse therapy is helpful to people with disabilities, but the results are clear.
"For whatever reason," she said, "the horse really just brings out really positive behaviors in children."
And Molly Appold, wearing a blue, first-place medal and a smile, is proof of that.
"I'm very proud of her that, you know, we could pull this off," Carey Appold said.