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THERAPY ON HORSEBACK Disabled children exercise in saddle


Eight-year-old Ashley Ermer wore a look of intense concentration as she sat atop a horse and practiced keeping her hands and feet at the correct angles.

Until her father caught her eye.

He beamed. She glowed.

Ashley has cerebral palsy. Usually, Ashley's mother brings her to the Carroll County 4-H Therapeutic Riding program at the Ag Center in Westminster, but Thursday her father, Rob Ermer, had a vacation day and brought her himself.

"The parents just beam when they see their kids up there," said Mary Shunk, one of the program's instructors.

The program has been growing since 1978, said Bob Shirley, cooperative extension agent for 4-H, who coordinates the program.

The horses and much of the tack and feed are donated, he said, as is the time of the instructors and volunteers. The program has a budget of $8,000 to $10,000 a year if all in-kind donations are included, Mr. Shirley said.

Program co-instructor Karen Scott said, "It's quite a self-esteem booster" for the riders.

"They're in a much more powerful position here," she said, because each is in charge of a 1,500-pound animal.

At each of two eight-week sessions, 48 children can participate, Mr. Shirley said. More than 30 others are on a waiting list.

About 60 volunteers make the program happen, said Mr. Shirley.

Some children come to the program in wheelchairs or using canes or walkers.

"When you're on a horse, everything is even," Ms. Scott said.

She teaches special education at Robert Moton School. Her co-instructor, Mary Shunk, taught riding for 27 years.

For children with disabilities, riding is a form of physical therapy, Ms. Scott said.

Because riders receive sensory input from so many sources, including their hands, feet, buttocks, eyes and ears, the activity can dramatically improve balance and coordination.

Mr. Ermer said the program has been good for Ashley because riding stretches her legs as well as tedious exercises would.

"This way, her legs are stretched for 45 minutes or so, and it doesn't even seem like it to her," he said.

Whenever an instructor asks the children to reach down and check a stirrup, Ms. Shunk said, they get stretching exercise. If thechildren are told to turn around in the saddle and pat their horse's rump, they get rotation exercise.

The warmth of the horses' bodies and the rhythm of their walk also soothe the children's knotted muscles, Ms. Scott said.

"By the time they've been on 10 or 15 minutes, they're much more relaxed," she said.

Many of the horses are older.

"We'll get five or six years' use out of them, and they'll get a lot of love, instead of going off to the Alpo factory," Mr. Shirley said.

The animals live at the Farm Museum while the program is in session in the spring and fall, he said. Volunteers care for the horses the rest of the year.

Ms. Scott said, "Some of our riders have gotten really competitive."

About 10 riders and five horses will travel to Malvern, Pa., over Memorial Day weekend to participate in the therapeutic riding portion of the Devon Horse Show.

Ms. Shunk said the children will ride in equitation, dressage and trail classes. One rider, Bruce Watt, will take the dressage Training Level 1 test, the same used by dressage riders without disabilities.

The horses seem to know they have to be on their best behavior with these riders, Ms. Shunk said.

Steve Powell, Carroll County budget director and a therapeutic riding volunteer, led a thoroughbred named Keynote during a class Thursday.

"In the hunt field, he's got a lot of energy," said Mr. Powell, "but here, he's just a gentleman."

Ms. Shunk said, "We would like to have an indoor hall with our program and run it almost all year round." That would allow more children a chance to ride.

She said the therapeutic riding program is considering a project to raise money and build an indoor ring. The program's leaders plan to approach the Ag Center's long-term planning committee with the idea at a meeting later this month, she said.

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