PORT DEPOSIT -- David Schlegel was born with cerebral palsy -- brain damage which causes trouble with muscle coordination and speech, and sometimes results in mental retardation.

That was 37 years ago, before doctors had learned the possibilities offered by physical therapy.

Now, children born with physical and mental challenges can benefit early from programs such as therapeutic riding at Freedom Hills near Port Deposit.

And after six years of therapy at Freedom Hill, Mr. Schlegel is also getting better.

The program strengthens spine and pelvic muscles, and even his friends have remarked on how much straighter he sits up and how much range of motion he's gaining.

Freedom Hills is run by Renee Sherrard Luther, a certified therapeutic riding instructor, and her sister, Robin Sherrard.

Ms. Luther decided in high school to pursue therapeutic riding. Due to a family friend's injury, she became familiar with the occupational therapy program at Johns Hopkins Hospital, and she liked what she saw.

The idea of therapeutic riding also fit perfectly with her lifelong lTC love of horses. The Sherrard sisters lived on a farm, and Ms. Luther had participated in 4-H for many years.

After graduating with a degree in equine studies and receiving her certification in therapeutic riding instruction, she decided to open up a program of her own, and what better place than on her family's farm in the Port Deposit area countryside? Since then, Rolling Hills Ranch has been home to Freedom Hills.

As far as Ms. Luther was concerned, it was a gift from the Lord. The program is a smash success in clientele, if not in dollars.

That's because Freedom Hills never turns away eligible clients because of inability to pay. The program relies on clients to pay what they can and donations from the community.

"We're kept humble; we never have too much money. But I just trust the Lord to have a check come from somewhere when we really need it, and he always does," Ms. Luther said.

This arrangement must be working, because Ms. Luther has managed to remain in business for the past 11 years.

She was even able to take on a student intern this summer, Jessica Litzinger, who attends school in North Carolina, but her family lives in Port Deposit.

Because the gait of a horse is similar to the movement of the human body, physically challenged clients can get the benefits of exercise to improve musculature, without the usual stress resulting from walking or running.

For those unable to walk, like Mr. Schlegel, the program is invaluable.

Abigail Hucker suffered a stroke before she was born, which affected her motor skills.

The 8-year-old has been coming to Freedom Hills for almost four years.

Her mother Vicki says she is amazed at Abigail's progress.

"When she first came here, she was in a wheelchair," Ms. Hucker said. "Now she uses a walker. We even think that soon she'll be able to walk on just crutches."

Mr. Schlegel said a therapist once told him if he had had access to a program like Freedom Hills as a small child, his condition would likely have been a great deal better. Perhaps he might even be walking.

Ms. Luther says that's why they try to get children in as young as possible, to have the greatest chance of improving their bodies and quality of life.

But the program also has something to offer its mentally impaired clients.

According to the Freedom Hills brochure, the program helps mentally challenged clients "improve concentration and emotional control."

During fall, winter and spring, 40 to 50 clients use the program each week. In the summer, as many as 150 might come through weekly.

The program is definitely growing, but Ms. Luther says she will keep her focus on quality, not quantity.

One of the greatest sources of pride at the program is a drill team comprised of mentally and physically challenged clients and able-bodied people.

Aptly named the Freedom Hills Mainstreamers, the group performs its 10-minute routine by invitation all over the East Coast.

The program is also involved with both the Maryland and national Special Olympics, providing instruction for trainers and horses for events.

Freedom Hills is a nonprofit corporation, accredited by the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association. For more information, call Rolling Hills Ranch at 378-2200.

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