Nancy McCary rides a powerful Belgian horse in tight circles, then along the outer railing of an indoor horse ring before guiding the gelding into the curve.
She rides by feel, sensing the animal lifting his head or shifting his weight, then nudging and prodding the beast quickly around the ring.
"Riding has meant everything to me," said McCary, 44, who's been blind for 22 years. "I feel like I'm not handicapped."
McCary takes riding lessons, an hour at a time, at the Therapeutic and Recreational Riding Center (TRRC) in Glenwood, a nonprofit group in western Howard County. To McCary, her riding lesson is more than exercise: It helps her cope with diabetes -- which has taken toes and a kidney -- and blindness.
She is one of the center's 300 clients, many of them children with physical and mental disabilities, who ride at the center. The demand for the center's services has become so great, say staff, that they are seeking to raise several million dollars to expand and create more programs geared toward the disabled.
The therapeutic benefits of riding are strengthened muscles, improved balance and increased self-esteem, experts say.
"We make sure [the disabled] get educations and work," said Helen Tuel, director of TRRC. "But that's not enough. They'll have health problems if they're not fit. And this is fun."
Therapeutic riding techniques spread to the United States after the Olympic Games in Helsinki, Finland, in 1952, when a paralyzed woman from Denmark won a silver medal for dressage, a type of competition in which the rider uses slight movements to steer the horse.
Today, 600 centers offer a variety of riding programs, said Pam Simons, spokeswoman for the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association.
The TRRC complex is on Shady Lane, occupying 55 acres of sprawling fields and woods.
Tuel and her husband, John, founded the TRRC 15 years ago. After eight years in Lisbon, they moved to Glenwood and have been expanding since.
First they installed fences, then built indoor and outdoor arenas, three-sided shelters for the horses and trails. But that has not kept up with demand, so center directors are hoping to raise money to build additional structures to offer more riding and treatment opportunities.
"The need is there," said Merope Pavlides, the center's director of development. "We are constantly having to try to sandwich new people in. We get new people every week."
In the next few years, the Tuels plan to build a $500,000 rider support center that would be attached to the large indoor ring, with stalls and a section where riders can warm up.
Eight stalls have been built. Another 28 are planned to accommodate the center's 40 horses, which sleep outdoors.
If they can raise the money through a capital fund drive under way and from private and corporate grants, center officials plan to create a therapy complex to house full-time speech pathologists and occupational and physical therapists.
"This is a prototype," said Helen Tuel. "I'd like to see other programs like this developed elsewhere."
Besides offering the disabled a chance to ride, the center also caters to their family members and friends.
"They now have an activity they can do together," Pavlides said.
In the McCary family, riding has been a team effort, since McCary's parents gave her a toy rocking horse at age 3.
Even after losing her sight, breaking a hip and undergoing a kidney transplant two decades ago, McCary still rides, with her father carrying equipment and videotaping her sessions.
At home, her mother offers encouragement. "She'd rather watch it on tape and know I'm safe," says McCary, smiling.
She slowly dons her black riding cap, zips up her vest and climbs aboard Sam the horse. In the saddle, she slips on black gloves and clutches a small whip that she sometimes uses to locate the outer rail.
At her job at the Department of Commerce in Silver Spring, she uses a wheelchair to go long distances because diabetes claimed her toes and balance. In 1997, doctors rebuilt her left knee.
McCary directs Sam in circles, with the horse tethered by a lunge line to Bob Caton, her instructor. Last spring, at their first lesson together, Caton set McCary loose without a lunge line -- her first time since going blind.
The ring is filled with Caton's booming voice: "Left, left, left, left. Straight line. Straight line. Right right right very good."
For an hour, McCary roams around the indoor ring, guiding Sam toward the rail, feeling when his head moves and his body shakes, sensing the wall. Then she gently shifts her body in the saddle, squeezing a leg against Sam's side. They move.
Sam trots in figure eights and serpentines, difficult maneuvers for a blind rider.
"I've been learning to ride better," she says. "I've been learning to feel the horse underneath me. Being blind, I feel the motion of what the horse is doing."
To teach McCary, Caton's first blind student, he wore a blindfold while riding Sam and then translated the unseen into instructions for McCary.
After the lesson, as her father gathers the equipment, McCary is breathing hard. "The emotions, the exercise, the excitement, the feeling," she says quickly and then slows. "I just love it. I never thought I'd stop riding."
For information, call Helen Tuel 410-489-5100 or write to the Therapeutic and Recreational Riding Center, 3750 Shady Lane, Glenwood 21738.
Pub Date: 2/15/99