At therapeutic center, horses used for healing

August 31, 2003|by BONNIE H. BRECHBILL

While Chambersburg's Therapeutic Riding Center overlooks the trout hatchery on Franklin Farms Lane, its most beautiful sight is not the fish or the old-fashioned waterwheel. It's the joy and excitement on the faces of the people who ride and drive horses there.

Steve Ebersole, who is paralyzed from the knees down due to spina bifida, strode up the mounting ramp on metal crutches on a recent Thursday. He sat ramrod straight on the horse, Jeannie. Now 29, Steve has been riding for 21 years.

His mother, Wilma Ebersole of Lemasters, Pa., said Steve's hips go in and out of their sockets and his thigh muscles tend to draw up, but the warmth of the horse loosens the muscles.

Another long-time rider, Kelly Thomas, 21, of Chambersburg, mounted a wide draft horse named Daisy with assistance and joined Steve in the outdoor riding ring. A senior at Edinboro (Pa.) University majoring in public relations, Kelly said riding helps with her balance and gives her confidence.


"It makes you realize how physically fit you are, because you can split across this baby," she said, patting Daisy.

Kelly, who uses a wheelchair, said her twin, Bobbi, is active in sports.

"I couldn't do sports, and this is something I can do that my sister doesn't," she said.

"Horseback riding is not the first sport that comes to mind when you think of sports. It's unique," Kelly said. "The horses are sweet, and the people who help out are really nice."

Nina Hill, president of the board of directors and an instructor for the program since it started 22 years ago, said the purpose of therapeutic riding is to provide recreation and therapy on horseback to people with special needs.

"The motion of the horse creates motion in any rider - you're stiff the next day after riding a horse because it's exercise," Hill, of Chambersburg, said. "For someone sedentary or in a wheelchair, they are getting exercise that they would not normally get.

"Some are able to go further and actually learn how to ride. Using the legs and body to communicate with the horse is good exercise," Hill said.

Not all the benefits are physical.

"Emotionally, it's terrific for these kids," Hill said. "They are (usually) pushed around in a wheelchair; they're going wherever Mom goes.

"Now, some of them are in control of a 1,000-pound horse. It gives them a great sense of accomplishment.

"They particularly love the trail ride," Hill said. "It seems like a wilderness - you can't see the barn from the trail - and it's really exciting for them."

Justin Wilson, 23, rode Stuffy around the ring with Ebersole and Thomas. His foster father, Bob Crider of Chambersburg, said Justin is autistic.

"He's intelligent academically," Crider said. "He can do math computations, he types on the computer, he reads on the high-school level, but it's difficult for him to speak and give information."

Riding a horse allows Justin to be in control, Crider said.

"He looks forward to this; he sits on the front step with his helmet on Thursday afternoons," he said.

Justin has been riding for eight years and works at Occupational Services Inc. in Chambersburg.

After the riders had walked their horses around the ring several times, stable manager Susan Rotz called them into the center. She led them through head circles, arm circles and leg raises. Then they practiced turning the horses, reversing direction and trotting.

In the adjacent ring, Robert Coady, 56, of Spring Run, Pa., rode with assistance from a leader and two side walkers. Coady, who has multiple sclerosis, uses no reins or stirrups. He has been riding for 12 years.

"Riding is a good stretch," he said. "It helps my balance.

He said that sometimes he lies back, over the horse's back.

"I feel better when I do that," he said.

Back in his electric wheelchair, Coady said, "The volunteers are tremendous. This wouldn't happen without the volunteers."

Seeking to expand

Hill said the center has 10 horses, including three draft horses. An indoor ring was built with a grant from the state.

The program's 41 riders also use two outdoor rings. Some of the horses were donated, others purchased.

"We're looking at ways to expand," Hill said. "We'd like to double the number of riders.

"We get funding wherever we can."

The T.B. Woods Foundation and the Alexander Stewart Foundation have contributed, and the center is a member of United Way. Although a few of the workers are paid, most are volunteers, Hill said, and put in two hours for each one-hour lesson.

Physical therapist Marcella Sheffler serves the center in an advisory capacity and as an instructor.

All riders and drivers wear helmets, but beyond that the equipment is adapted to whatever is best for the rider. Some use safety stirrups and others use no stirrups, which helps to develop balance.

Some have a strap across the front of the saddle to hold on to. Some ride English, some Western, and others use no saddle.

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