VOL. 112 | NO. 154 | Friday, August 28, 1998
By STACEY PETSCHAUER
Horseback riding program helps disabled children
improve coordination, balance and joint mobility
By STACEY PETSCHAUER
The Daily News
A 12-year-old boy named Ben began riding horses about five years ago.
In itself, this might not seem unusual, but Ben has a disability that affects his legs and hips, at times making movement painful.
For about two years, Ben participated in a therapeutic horseback riding program designed to help people with disabilities improve their coordination, balance and joint mobility.
Called Special Cargo, the program offered by United Cerebral Palsy of the Mid-South also helps strengthen and relax participants muscles, improve their concentration and build self-confidence.
While he was involved in the program, Ben underwent surgery that left him in a body cast for six months. When the cast was removed, Bens body had lost much of its flexibility.
He returned to horseback riding to help his recovery, said Cleve Stevens, a Memphis-area artist and a Special Cargo volunteer.
"He had been in the body cast so long, he had no flexibility at all," Stevens said. "So when we put him on the horse, the plan was to let him ride for a minute or so and gradually work him back up."
Brandy, the horse Ben was riding, also had leg problems, so Ben really identified with the horse, Stevens said.
"We put him on Brandy, and it was obvious from the get-go that he was in extreme pain. So I said, Ben, well get you off.
"He said, No. Brandy needs his exercise. He felt it was important for Brandy to walk, too.
"He figured since he hadnt been there, Brandy hadnt been used. So Ben was thinking about Brandy," he said.
Ben insisted on remaining on the horse for a full round in the ring so Brandy could get his exercise.
"We finally had to pull him off. He wouldve stayed on longer, and I thought that was amazing," Stevens said.
"I was thinking, Im the biggest weenie in the world about pain. And here he was from the moment we put him on, he was in such pain.
"He never complained, but his eyes were filled with tears. And rather than get off, he wanted to walk Brandy all the way around. That was one of the most courageous things Id ever seen."
Stevens has been a volunteer for the Special Cargo program for about 10 years. This year his participation is especially important because volunteers are sparse.
Three volunteers per child are needed to run the program, two to walk alongside the horse and one to lead.
Volunteers are greatly needed and are not required to have any previous experience with horses, said Ashley Luckett, director of support and recreational services for UCP of the Mid-South.
"We are desperate for new volunteers this fall," Luckett said. "In order for us to run the program, we have to have volunteers."
New volunteers receive an orientation packet that provides information about their responsibilities, she said.
The programs participants are children and adults with all types of disabilities, including cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, spina bifida and head injuries, Luckett said. Participants are evaluated by a physical therapist before they are accepted into the program.
"The criteria to be involved depends on the rider and what the physical therapist thinks is best for the rider. As long as they have enough trunk control to be able to sit up on the horse, they should be able to do it. And they can be in a wheelchair," Luckett said.
UCP of the Mid-South has offered the Special Cargo program since 1984. Luckett said the program is the only one of its sort in the West Tennessee area, but there are seven therapeutic riding programs in the state.
According to the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association, Memphis has the only accredited program in Tennessee.
The instructor for the program, Carolyn Dandurand, has been involved with Special Cargo for six years.
"I became involved with the program through church affiliation. It was one of our community outreach missions," Dandurand said.
"Im an advanced-level equestrian, so I thought the program would be something that would allow me to give back to the community and would fit reasonably with my time."
So she joined the program, which was held at the time at Carousel Farm in Collierville. The program has since moved to CIN-FE Farm, also in Collierville.
Dandurand said she looked at what UCP was trying to do with the program and decided that if the instructor ever left the program, she could take over.
"I just kept it in the back of my mind, and within two years, the instructor did leave. Thats when I stepped in, and I wasnt really happy with what I could do with disabilities or how far I could push.
"And even though we did have some physical therapy support from a physical therapist, it was difficult to know just how much I could push those kids. And I wasnt pushing them enough is what I was finding. I was bored, and everybody else was bored," she said.
So Dandurand spent three years working to receive registered certification through the NARHA and became a registered, paid instructor.
"So now, we have a whole different program," she said. "Before, I think it was sort of a glorified pony ride, where there just wasnt a whole lot of instruction. Now, we have exercises that we do, I teach a riding skill, and we do games pertinent to that riding skill.
"So we have steps, where were not just going around and around. We do different things, depending on the disability and what they can handle," she said.
Dandurand said she enjoys working with the children and giving back to the community.
"I enjoy the fact that I am able to give something back to the community. That has been just the No. 1 joy in my life," she said. "Thats what gives me the greatest satisfaction. I can give a gift that God gave me and share it with kids that normally wouldnt be able to do this."
Dandurand also cares for the programs five therapy horses, recruits volunteers, appears for speaking engagements and holds fund-raisers.
With the help of a master certified instructor who visited the program about three years ago, Dandurand also began a "hippotherapy" program to supplement the Special Cargo program.
The program takes its name from the word hippo, which means horse in Greek. It uses the horse as a mode of treatment for various disabilities.
"Younger children with movement dysfunctions, rigidity or spasticity problems, or head control problems can be placed in different positions on the horse and use the motion and the warmth of the horse to strengthen unused muscles and relax the spasticity in the legs. It also helps strengthen muscle tone in the neck by putting them in different positions and asking them to do different things," Dandurand said.
The hippotherapy program is starting its third year here and has a waiting list of 15 people, she said.
The Special Cargo program begins on Sept. 22 and runs through May. The program is divided into two semesters, September through December and January through May. Classes meet from 2:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Stevens said the one requirement he feels is necessary for volunteer participation in the program is dedication.
"Some of these kids have a host of problems, and little things like a cold will put them down for a couple of weeks," he said.
"So the problem is, sometimes people will come out, and we dont have the full class of kids, and if they dont get used every class, they say, Well, Im not needed. I wont come back. Then the next week, we have all the kids but not all the volunteers.
"If you come out, make a commitment to be there no matter what, whether its a pretty day or a bad day. Youve got to decide that this is a top priority because if we have all of the kids but not enough volunteers, some of them dont get to ride, and that just ruins their whole week."