Driving ponies gives disabled a welcome challenge


The two ponies clip-clopped up a winding road, drawing specially built carriages toward a low-slung building at McDonogh School.

Carol Thawley, who has multiple sclerosis, sat in her wheelchair, waiting with several other disabled people for their weekly trip around the indoor riding ring.

"You can stay home and get depressed, or you can come out here and enjoy working with the ponies and learn something," she said.

Sybil Dukehart watched as a volunteer pushed Carole Hillier, 33, in a wheelchair up a ramp and onto a carriage. Ms. Hillier suffered a stroke a year ago and is severely disabled, but her smile was wide and constant as reins were placed in her hands.

"Walk on," Ms. Hillier commanded in a shrill, shaky voice, and Pokey, a Welsh mountain pony, bowed its head and obediently began pulling.

"They actually control the ponies by voice command and with the reins," Mrs. Dukehart said. "We always have an able-bodied person ride with them, with a set of reins in their hands, but they are the ones doing the directing.

JTC "The Welsh ponies are valued for their patience and calmness while being driven by the disabled. We always have to think of safety," she said.

Mrs. Dukehart, 75, is founder and president of Driving for the Disabled, an organization devoted to helping the disabled with one simple therapy: teaching them to drive a pony-drawn carriage. She brought the idea from England more than 10 years ago.

"They've been doing this in England for 25 years, and I saw it there when I was judging a horse show," she said. In 1982, she started the program on her farm and later moved it to McDonogh. The school lets the organization use its facilities without charge.

"I've been many times blessed in my life, two fine husbands, four wonderful daughters. To see these people drive a pony carriage brings me such joy," Mrs. Dukehart said.

Nine disabled people, most of them suffering from cerebral palsy or multiple sclerosis, were at McDonogh on a cold, windy day recently. As many as 16 disabled people turn out for the once-a-week sessions, which are held in six-week segments four times a year.

"Many have cerebral palsy, and that association helps us out financially, but we also have accident victims, disabled war veterans, people with muscular dystrophy and multiple sclerosis, just about everything," Mrs. Dukehart said.

The organization has an annual budget of about $75,000, according to Vice President Mickie Bowen, who comes from Unionville, Pa., each week to direct the riders in their 20-minute rides. Each disabled person pays $30 a year toward insurance, but most of the money comes from donations, fund-raisers and grants from private foundations.

Mrs. Dukehart, who lives on the 215-acre Shoulderbone Farm in Madonna in Harford County, recently held tryouts on her farm for an international competition next summer in England. A four-member team with one alternate will be chosen from the United States. Teams from 22 countries will participate.

"There are no money prizes, just ribbons," Mrs. Dukehart said. "We do it for the fun and joy of it, and to bring an element of competition into their lives.

"Driving a pony carriage is very much a challenge for the riders," she said. "Multiple sclerosis can affect the eyesight, and some can't see well. But just look at the faces, and you can see the concentration and the joy."

Ms. Thawley admits she was petrified at first.

"We argued because no one wanted to go first," she said. "Now we argue to go first. I've learned how to drive a pony carriage, something I didn't think I was capable of learning."

Said Mrs. Dukehart: "They're heartened by instant success at something they didn't think they could accomplish."

Volunteers come out each week to help the riders, harness the ponies and get the riders aboard. Chris Moran drives in from Delta, Pa.

"It's wonderful for their mental outlook and for mine," she said.

Herbert Barnhardt, a 79-year-old retired math teacher at Baltimore Polytechnic and Northwestern High School brings Steve Carton, who has multiple sclerosis, to McDonogh each week.

"It's just something I can do to help," he said as Mr. Carton prepared for his ride around the ring.

Said Mr. Carton: "I enjoy being out, and I like being in control of something, even a pony."

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