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Special Olympian 'never met a horse I didn't like'


Ask Amy B. Dietrich what she likes most about horseback riding and she answers with a bright smile: "The freedom, because I'm in charge."

"Just getting free from my wheelchair is the best part," she said. "And, I am so comfortable in the saddle."

For 15 of her 20 years, Ms. Dietrich has participated in the 4-H therapeutic riding program, and she says "I never met a horse I didn't like."

She hopes soon to add a 1995 International Olympic gold medal to the collection of awards she has earned at local and state Special Olympics contests. With a win at the 1994 state contest, she qualified for this year's international competition, which will begin Saturday in New Haven, Conn.

"I compete in the Special Olympics every year, and usually I win," she said. She has a roomful of trophies and medals in her Sykesville home to prove it.

"Amy likes to compete, but she doesn't have a real competitive streak," Annette Dietrich said of her daughter. "She likes being around people even more."

In New Haven, where 6,000 athletes from 90 countries will meet for the 1995 International Special Olympics, Amy will put her skills to the ultimate test.

"It is the biggest event for these athletes," said Mary Shunk, Ms. Dietrich's coach, who will accompany her and Adam Dunn, another winning Carroll County equestrian, to the Special Olympics.

Ms. Shunk will be on the sidelines when her students ride to compete for Special Olympics medals. "All the coaching will be done before we get there," she said.

Mrs. Dietrich said the competitors "have so much spirit. They are truly inspiring."

Amy Dietrich, born with cerebral palsy, is in constant danger of falling because of involuntary movements on her right side, said her mother.

"Falling is far too dangerous, so she uses a wheelchair for mobility," said Mrs. Dietrich. "We had hoped she would develop the ability to walk with braces and a walker, but she can't count on her right leg. It throws her off balance and causes her to fall backward."

Amy Dietrich is determined to be as independent as possible, said her mother.

"She works very hard to do everything she can on her own," said Mrs. Dietrich. "It's a tough job, one of persistence and sheer determination."

Amy's father, Dick Dietrich, usually accompanies her to her weekly therapeutic riding sessions at the Ag Center in Westminster. He helps her get her wheelchair up the ramp where her coach and Easter, her favorite horse, await. Within minutes and with little further assistance, Ms. Dietrich takes the reins and rides around the ring.

"She rides strictly on balance and can't grab with her legs," said Caroline Babylon, a therapeutic riding instructor.

"For Amy, there are good physical benefits to riding. Her hips and shoulders rotate in the same pattern as if she was walking and exercising those muscles. It also improves her posture."

Easter is an ideal horse for the program, said Bob Shirley, 4-H Extension Service agent.

"Amy is a good rider who doesn't test the horse," he said. "Easter is responsive to her and will listen to what she asks."

For safety reasons, a leader and a side walker accompany the riders. "4-H members donate their time to help riders to hold the lead rope and as side walkers to steady the rider if he or she gets off balance," said Ms. Dietrich.

She used to wear a jacket with a posture pocket so the side walker could help her sit straight. "Now, she rides tall and doesn't need the pocket," said Mrs. Dietrich.

Easter won't be traveling to New Haven, but Ms. Dietrich said she is not nervous about riding an unfamiliar horse in the two of three equestrian events.

"I have been riding since I was 5, and I have never been afraid of animals," she said.

Ms. Dietrich will practice for a few days on her new horse, which Ms. Shunk will help her select.

"There are about 200 horses [at the International Olympics], lent by the American Quarterhorse Association," said Ms. Shunk. "For Amy, we'll look for one with an easy, gentle trot and one who is responsive to Amy's hands and her signals."

For the Maryland Special Olympians, the celebration will begin Thursday at the Inner Harbor. The Pride of Baltimore II crew will take part in the send-off and give members of the Special Olympics sailing team a chance to show off.

Ms. Dietrich, who just graduated from Liberty High, has the rest of her post-Olympics summer mapped out with family projects and vacation plans.

"She loves to swim," said her mother. "She has such freedom in the water, too."

In September, Ms. Dietrich will join the work force as an inventory clerk at Kmart at Carrolltown Center.

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