Therapeutic riding programs offer physical, social and mental benefits for disabled children and adults.
Riding Cricket across the sandy indoor arena at Serenata Farms, Joe McClaskey breaks into a big smile when he leans forward to touch the horse's ears.
Head instructor Becky Buchanan has asked Joe and three other Therapeutic Horse Riding Instruction of Lawrence students to stretch atop their horses.
``Like this?'' Joe asks Buchanan.
Later, Buchanan asks Joe to direct Cricket, a Pony of the Americas horse, to go straight and then turn right.
Joe is happy to oblige.
The 11-year-old has been participating in THRIL for four years. Diagnosed with autism, Joe enrolled in the program after his mother went to a conference and learned about therapeutic horseback riding.
``I thought it sounded fun,'' said Joe's mother, Susan Elmborg, a Topeka resident. ``It's something to do. It's a social thing that's good for him. He's come a long way this session.''
THRIL is one of two not-for-profit therapeutic riding programs in Douglas County. The other, the School of Equestrian Arts, also meets at Serenata Farms in Big Springs, about 10 miles west of Lawrence on Highway 40.
Therapeutic horseback riding improves coordination, balance and other physical skills and increases self-esteem and cognitive and social skills, organizers say. Therapeutic riding serves people with autism, brain injuries, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, developmental delays, hearing and visual impairments, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, spina bifida and other physical and mental disabilities.
Carol Leffler, president of THRIL's board of directors, said THRIL provides a sense of freedom for some of its riders.
``For most people here there is a quality of life issue,'' Leffler said, adding it amazes her what a difference riding makes in people's lives. ``This is something they can do.''
Buchanan has been an instructor since the group started in 1992 and has served as head instructor since 1995. Horses meant a lot to her as a child, and she has seen what they can mean to people with disabilities.
Six-year-old Sean Varner, who has cerebral palsy, has been involved in therapeutic riding off and on for four years. On a recent evening, he rode on a small Welsh mare named Funny.
After the grooming session, Sean left the confines of his wheelchair and mounted his horse with the assistance of THRIL volunteers and a special ramp.
Sean, who lives in Topeka, requires more help because he uses a wheelchair, his mother, Joyce, said.
Varner said she thought therapeutic riding would be an activity Sean could call his own.
``He's never going to play basketball or football,'' she said. ``This is all for him.''
Cathy Skrtic volunteered to ride during a recent demonstration for SEA. Skrtic, a 48-year-old woman who has a learning disability, has participated in the THRIL program for five years.
The Lawrence woman rode Windham, an Arabian, at THRIL's 7:30 p.m. session for adults Thursday.
``I like being with other people and meeting new people, too,'' Skrtic said.
Sixteen-year-old Cole Browne of Baldwin gets excited talking about therapeutic riding.
``I love to learn how to ride horses and how I can treat the horses,'' he said. ``Nick is a real nice horse, and he's real big and he loves to sniff people and stuff.''
Cole, who has cerebral palsy, has been riding for two years.
``We try to do a lot of things for him,'' his dad, Gary, said. ``I think it's great. From a father's standpoint, it's just wonderful.''
Although NARHA touts therapeutic riding's physical, mental and social benefits, health insurance doesn't cover the lessons. Browne doesn't mind paying for the $20 sessions for his son.
``It's worth the money.''
Fred Lehman agrees. He has been bringing 24-year-old Chris Umbenhower to THRIL for three years. Lehman is Umbenhower's legal guardian and has taken care of said, and does not have use of his entire left side. He functions mentally at the level of a 4-year-old, Lehman said.
Lehman heard about therapeutic riding by word of mouth and waited two years to get Umbenhower into the THRIL program.
``It's exciting to see him get out and enjoy himself,'' Lehman said.
Before they started riding, Cole and Chris greeted each other warmly, illustrating the camaraderie formed between the participants over time.
THRIL and SEA are members of the North American Riding for the Handicapped Assn.
Bud Newell, who owns Serenata Farms with his wife, wept as he talked about therapeutic riding and its benefits to a crowd of a couple dozen people interested in the SEA program.
He said it has helped give his life meaning. Watching someone disabled enjoy riding a horse is a spiritual experience, Newell said.
Cecile Komara of Osawatomie is one of SEA's instructors. She has been involved in therapeutic riding for four years in other states and recently moved to the area. She co-founded a riding program in northeast Tennessee.
Komara likes therapeutic riding for a simple reason: ``You're helping people.''
Meanwhile, Skrtic is just beaming.
She got to ride twice in one week.
-- Deb Gruver's phone message number is 832-7165. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.