While driving from their home in Timonium to The Retreat at Beckleysville in Hampstead on Nov. 7, Martha Sanchez said her 18-year-old special needs son could not contain his excitement.
“We kept asking him where he was going and he knew,” she said. “He was clapping and was so excited. He jumped out of the car and ran to the riding ring as soon as the car stopped.”
Daniel was one of many kids who turned out for The Retreat’s annual Halloween Therapeutic Riding Show.
“Mary’s heart is so big. She is so full of kindness and gentleness with the kids … so sweet. I love her so much and I am so grateful that Daniel does the program with her,” Sanchez said.
Sanchez was speaking of The Retreat’s program director, Mary Shunk.
“I’ve always felt horses and ponies were beneficial for children and adults in so many ways, besides the physical skill of riding a horse,” Shunk said.
She named the benefits.
“Self-esteem, responsibility, commitment, perseverance, dedication, helping others … therapeutic riding is a win-win situation all the way around for all riders, horses, and volunteers,” she said.
Shunk is an advanced certified instructor with PATH INT — the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International, a federally-registered nonprofit and the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association, founded to promote equine-assisted activities and therapies for individuals with special needs.
Even though she runs a program at her farm, Shunk also still volunteers for the Therapeutic Riding Program of Carroll County as well. She said the Halloween show was especially important this year, because the Special Olympics were canceled because of COVID-19 and her students were also unable to go to the handicapped riders' event at Devon.
“They certainly have missed the shows and social events,” she said of her special population. “The kids love to dress up and they love it when we dress our horses up and certainly this year of all years, it was needed to bring a smile to their face [after] they’ve been closed up in their houses. This certainly seemed like the right thing to do.”
Sanchez agreed, saying the coronavirus kept them from the spring sessions and her son could not wait to be back. She said Daniel did not begin to walk until he was 3 years old, but it was not until he tried therapeutic riding that they saw marked improvement.
“When he was 7 or 8, we tried therapeutic riding. The first time he got on a horse, after he got off, he was walking straight,” she said. “He was so happy. It improved his posture and his walking. It was amazing and we were so happy. I have seen him growing and becoming a little more independent. The assistant at The Retreat, Katherine, is great too. She tries to use different kinds of motivations and he loves it.”
Sanchez was referring to Kathleen Freeburger, a volunteer who has several roles at The Retreat.
“I am a riding student, a volunteer for the therapeutic lessons — where I either lead the horse or act as a side-walker to assist with the safety of the rider — and most importantly, I am in the process of becoming a certified therapeutic instructor,” Freeburger said. “Mary Shunk oversees my teaching, I instruct individual riders and group lessons under her supervision.”
Freeburger said riders at the show were judged on their abilities to perform equitation skills including walk, trot and halt. They also had to complete a six-part obstacle course. To make it fun, volunteers dressed up the horses, and riders came in costume.
“We tried to coordinate some of the costumes,” Shunk said. “For instance, one rider was going to be a mermaid, so Kathleen set a fishing net to go across the horse with starfish and seashells on. One of my volunteers dressed up as Minnie Mouse and let her own pony [go] in the costume parade as Mickey Mouse. Another was a dog trainer, and her pony was a dog. We had a costume parade at the end in which special medals were given out to the riders or the rider/horse combo. Then, riders were allowed to pick a ribbon of their choice or a medal. Everybody was acknowledged for their costumes.”
Meg Carter brought her 35-year-old daughter, Lucy, to the show. Lucy, who has myriad developmental problems, many of which, her mom said, stem from severe epilepsy — started riding at age 4.
“Therapeutic riding, to me, is one of the best things that people with disabilities can do, whether physical or mental disabilities,” Carter said. “The motion of the horse encourages people to use the body in a way that they typically don’t. That’s the physical side. The mental side — for people who have so little control in their lives — is that it gives them actual control. Lucy is directing her horse. There are people there to make sure nothing bad happens but from a cognitive and mental health viewpoint, it is great.”
Carter said, from a cognitive point of view, Lucy gets more out of riding than any other cognitive activity.
“The steps all make a lot of sense to her, what she needs to do and how she needs to accomplish it,” she said. “People with developmental disabilities often have a hard time following directions because they are sometimes abstract, but in riding, you put the concrete and the abstract together. The tasks are very specific, but they require a lot of thinking and planning. It is wonderful for her in that way.”
At the show, Lucy was in a boot for an injured foot, yet she still won her walk class. Scott said her boot wouldn’t fit in the stirrup, so she rode in a padded sock.
Karen Scott, a regular volunteer who judged the Halloween show, recalled how well Lucy handled riding with an injured foot.
“We adapted a couple of tasks — no trotting, no two-point position — and when she was in the obstacle course, we changed the direction of one task, so she was not leaning to that side,” she said.
But Scott said Lucy was as tough as nails.
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“The thing about Mary’s program is Mary,” Carter said. “She is just a remarkable person and that comes through in everything she does. I think she is a horse whisperer and an autism whisperer and her program is special because of her.”
Scott echoed the same thoughts.
“Everything Ms. Mary does at the Retreat is amazing,” she said. “There are so many dedicated volunteers that have been there for many years, long after their kids [who] went there to ride are grown and gone. The horse is a great equalizer. To be in charge of 1,000 pound animal when you may not have much control over your own life due to a cognitive or physical disability is pretty amazing.”
The Retreat at Beckleysville offers recreational, competitive, and therapeutic riding for people of all ages and abilities in a safe environment with minimal cost. Riders come from all over to enjoy the warm and inviting atmosphere and the enriching approach of its trained volunteers.
Shunk says benefits of therapeutic riding include improved muscle tone improved balance, increased confidence, speech and language enrichment, sensory integration and social interaction.
“It was very nice to be able to be constant with our therapeutic show and even more fun because of how it fell on Halloween,” Shunk said. “It was nice that they had a chance to dress up and to show off their skills that they’ve been working so hard on, even though we were limited as to the amount of people that could be there and we had to practice all of our social distancing skills. I think everybody had a good day.”
Learn more online at: www.retreatatbeckleysville.org.