Disabled take reins to drive ponies


It is the perfect day for a drive. The ponies trot briskly down the lane at Olney Farm, pulling their carriages beneath a canopy of trees that whisper of autumn color yet to come.

Jana Pratt holds the reins and wears a smile that just won't quit. She rarely experiences such freedom. Even her wheelchair can't slow her down.

"I like it because I get to be with animals," said Miss Pratt, 20. "At first I was scared but now I'm not. Sometimes I like to trot."

Ms. Pratt is one of seven students from the John Archer School in Bel Air who participate in a recreational pony driving program in the fall and spring.

The students -- most of whom have muscular dystrophy or cerebral palsy and use wheelchairs or walkers -- travel by bus one afternoon a week to this Harford County horse farm on Old Joppa Road.

There, they meet volunteers from Driving for the Disabled, the non-profit organization that makes the outings possible. Every Wednesday, two ponies are brought by trailer from Shoulderbone Farm in Jarrettsville. This week, two geldings named Nightlight and Sage are harnessed up and ready to work. They were chosen for the job because they are well-behaved, well-trained and faultlessly obedient.

The students ride in carriages designed to accommodate wheelchairs.

One seat can be removed and the back of the carriage can be folded down to make a ramp. A locking mechanism holds the wheelchair safely in place. And an experienced driver, holding a second set of reins, goes along for the ride.

Driving for the Disabled was founded 10 years ago by Sybil Dukehart, a longtime driving enthusiast and the owner of Shoulderbone Farm. She became interested in teaching people with disabilities to drive pony carriages after observing similar programs in England.

The only cost to participants is a $30 yearly fee to cover insurance. The project is supported by fund-raisers throughout the year.

"I think all of us get a great kick out of what can be accomplished by handicapped people who have been dependent on others to push them in a wheelchair," said Mrs. Dukehart, president of the organization. "Suddenly they find they can drive a pony carriage around cones on an obstacle course and do circles and serpentines. They can do something that many able-bodied people can't do, and it's a tremendous ego-booster."

In addition to the psychological benefits, driving has physical therapeutic value because it encourages good posture and a loud, clear voice, said Mrs. Dukehart, who conducts a similar program for adults in Baltimore County.

"This seems to be a natural type of recreational activity for people with orthopedic disabilities," said Rodney Ewing, principal at John Archer School. "It's stimulating to them and physically enjoyable. And it's a physically good exercise program because there's a lot of movement involved."

Driving for the Disabled is the only program of its kind in the United States, and it is dedicated exclusively to driving, Mrs. Dukehart said.

Nationwide, therapeutic horseback riding is becoming a popular leisure time activity for people with disabilities. The North American Riding for the Handicapped Association Inc. represents more than 450 riding centers where people with disabilities can ride with the assistance of volunteers.

Volunteers from Driving for the Disabled travel all over the country conducting training clinics primarily for people who want to incorporate driving into their therapeutic riding programs.

"Some students are no longer able to ride, but they love ponies," said Mrs. Dukehart, who is 74.

"I've always wanted to be able to ride," said Guy Long, 18, who recently started his third year of driving. "I like it because I think it's a good thing to do. I think it's a good experience for me since I'm a handicapped person."

Ron Hill, his physical education teacher, accompanies the students to the driving program each week.

"This is a type of physical experience that our students have never had before," Mr. Hill said. "It gives them the chance to be in charge. It helps them with their physical endurance and their posture and their self-esteem. It makes them feel real good about themselves."

For information about Driving for the Disabled, call 557-7163. For information about horse-related activities for people with disabilities or a list of therapeutic riding/driving centers in Maryland, call (800) 369-RIDE.

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