PARSONSBURG, Md. (AP) — A blind man on horseback follows the tinkling of bells deeper into the forest. At his side, a watchful assistant makes sure he stays clear of harm as the bell ringer leads them further into the 5,000-acre woods.
On another day, four riders confidently play a game on their horses — but they are just kids, and one of them has Asperger’s, one autism, another cerebral palsy and the fourth developmental delay. Normally it would be difficult, if not impossible, to hold their attention for such an extended period, but the horses are
again working their magic.
These are just a couple of what Sandy Winter calls the daily “miracles” of the therapeutic riding program 4Steps; such activities have repeatedly delivered profound results in the physical and emotional quality of life of participants.
The executive director of the nonprofit program, Winter related the story of one handicapped girl who broke down in tears because she was able to ride a horse, something she had always dreamed of doing but never thought she would be able to experience first-hand.
“I know just how she felt,” Winter said. “She wanted to be with them and love them and smell them and she was finally able to do it.”
A Premier Accredited Center of the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association, which has been in existence since 1969, 4Steps uses programs and techniques developed by the national organization with about 30 riders weekly.
In addition to the association’s home in Denver, Winter has visited and observed many of NARHA’s 800 certified centers in locations as far flung as Casper, Wyo. At her location, just up a sandy driveway off Sixty-Foot Road in Parsonsburg, gentle music plays as horses wander in corrals nestled against the Wicomico
Demonstrating the complex pelvic movements that make riding what she calls the best exercise in the world, Winter explains how riding improves disabled riders’ balance, strengthens their muscles, improves coordination and range of motion of joints and reduces spastic movements.
Psychologically, the benefits can be even more dramatic. At 66 years old, poultry magnate Frank Perdue’s cousin, Ellen Perdue, is one of the many who have returned repeatedly to ride 4Steps trails.
“It gives people something to stay healthy for,” Winter said.
One of 4Step’s newer programs, called Horse Power, caters to at-risk youth who have difficulties functioning in traditional educational and social settings. Funded by the Community Foundation of the Eastern Shore and the Dick and Betty Wootten Fund, many participants in Horse Power are sponsored by the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
Out in the fresh air, she said kids are able to find a sense of normality and develop patience, emotional control and self-discipline.
In addition to helping riders find a place to be themselves, six of the program’s nine horses are former thoroughbred race horses.
Caring for these animals and purchasing the equipment isn’t cheap, and though the riders are charged a fee, Winter said they never turn anyone away because of an inability to pay.
Relying on community donations to remain sustainable, Winter said they are currently working on a grant for a special adaptive saddle that would make riding possible for even more clients than are currently served.
And Winter said they are always looking for more volunteers to do anything from grooming horses and assisting riders to doing office work and fundraising.
She said all that’s needed to volunteer is to be more than 13 years old and willing to work around horses.
The Daily Times of Salisbury
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)