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Therapeutic riding center hopes to 'raise the roof' for new arena

Glenwood MD-10/4/16-Andre Ross works at The Therapeutic & Recreational Riding Center, Inc. which is holding a fundraiser to raise money to build an indoor sensory-sensitive therapy arena. Photo by Algerina Perna/Baltimore Sun Staff. --#60952.
Glenwood MD-10/4/16-Andre Ross works at The Therapeutic & Recreational Riding Center, Inc. which is holding a fundraiser to raise money to build an indoor sensory-sensitive therapy arena. Photo by Algerina Perna/Baltimore Sun Staff. --#60952. (Algerina Perna / Baltimore Sun)

When David Couser is riding Dude under the open sky at the Therapeutic and Recreational Riding Center in Glenwood, there is no place he'd rather be.

Riding in the main indoor arena is a different matter.

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While the 12-year-old boy with autism spectrum disorder and the gentle chestnut pony with a tawny mane share a bond that has transformed his life, his parents say, those benefits almost disappear when inclement weather forces riders inside.

But now, thanks to the center's plan to build a sensory-sensitive indoor riding arena on its 55-acre property on Shady Lane, David and other riders like him won't have to keep missing crucial therapeutic sessions because of the crippling sensory overload that a fast-paced, enclosed space can trigger.

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The center — which was founded by Helen and John Tuel in Olney in 1983 and moved to its current location in 1994 after eight years in Lisbon — is holding an event called Raise the Roof from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Oct. 16 to launch the effort to raise $150,000 for the arena's construction. There will be live music, food and wine sampling.

"The new arena will be more intimate and provide fewer distractions for our clients with sensory processing disorders" like autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other conditions, said Helen Tuel.

At 4,100 square feet, the sensory-sensitive arena will be much smaller than the 23,100-square-foot main indoor arena. Currently, the two existing indoor arenas must be divided up with traffic cones to accommodate a wide variety of simultaneous uses during inclement weather.

"Horses whizzing by, extra noise, dust and bright lights are all intimidating to people who are [adversely] affected by textures, smells and sounds," especially in an enclosed space where those issues are magnified, Tuel said.

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The fundraiser represents the kickoff of the center's pursuit to meet a yearlong, $75,000 challenge grant awarded this spring by the Finish Line Youth Foundation.

The grant gives the center until May 2017 to raise the full sum, which Finish Line will then match, according to Marty Posch, president of the Indianapolis-based nonprofit organization that is an arm of Finish Line, a national chain of athletic apparel and shoe stores.

"We went into this fully confident that TRRC will be able to raise $75,000 and get all of the matching funds," Posch said. "If they don't reach the maximum amount by May, we will continue our conversations with them because we want to support them as much as we can."

The plans for an indoor arena with special features have been greeted enthusiastically, even though no timeline for completion has been finalized.

Upon learning the news, Kirk Couser — who moved with his wife, Hope, to Howard County from Tennessee nine years ago after the couple scoured the country for the best autism services for their son David — said the couple felt their prayers had been answered.

Couser, who heads a Columbia-based technology company, said that in 2013 their son suddenly began to recoil in pain at the prospect of riding in the center's main indoor arena.

Witnessing David's fear in a situation in which he had been thriving for years brought the Woodstock couple to tears and caused them to wonder if they'd have to change course in his treatment, he said.

"The staff told us it would get better and they said, 'Don't worry; we've got this.' They never gave up on him," he said.

The center's mission is to treat a wide range of disabilities by providing physical and occupational therapy on horseback.

The new arena will be heated and soundproof, and will have a sprinkler system for dust control, among other features, in order to accommodate the center's growing patient roster, said Anya Harris, who volunteers her public relations expertise as a spokesperson for the center.

Howard County has the largest per-capita population of children with autism in Maryland, according to the website of the Howard County Autism Society. Children with autism make up about 4 percent of the special-education population in jurisdictions across the state on average; in Howard County, that figure rises to 8 percent, the website states.

Eighty percent of the center's patients live in Howard County, Tuel said.
About 200 riders of all ages use the facility each week and the center maintains a waiting list, she said, adding that "no one should have to wait for therapy."

The founders, who grew up near Washington with no prior equestrian experience, embarked on their mission three decades ago to their family's alarm, Tuel said.

"Our relatives thought we were crazy," she said, laughing at the memory.

The couple had been married for 20 years when they decided to establish a center; she abandoned a career as a dental hygienist, and her husband left his management position with a national grocery chain to concentrate on stable management.

Their life-altering about-face was sparked by a request that Helen Tuel received from a neighbor when the Tuels lived in Olney, who asked if she would teach her son, who had Down syndrome, to ride the pony Tuel was watching for a friend.

Since Tuel had no idea how to teach people with special needs to ride, she decided to learn. Founding a center that would reach many people soon became a dream.

"Horses are forgiving and see riders as they are," Tuel said, explaining the success of the various equine therapies.

"These animals are large and commanding of their space, yet they do not judge, and our patients consider them their friends."

The equestrian world is often viewed as an expensive and elitist environment, Harris said, but therapeutic riding falls into a different category and a successful program depends on "hordes of passionate volunteers."

Kirk Couser said he hopes the community will support the new project.

"We are convinced that David wouldn't be the person he is today without Helen and John and the amazing people at TRRC," Couser said. "To know that there is a solution in the works for people like him is phenomenal."

For more information on the sensory-sensitive arena or to purchase tickets for the Oct. 16 fundraiser, go to trrcmd.org or call 410-489-5100.

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