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Horseback program in Franklin County focuses on autistic riders

October 20, 2008|By JENNIFER FITCH

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. -- Holly Bortfeld has watched her autistic son benefit greatly from therapeutic horseback riding over the last decade, but waited several years for a slot to open at the riding center for her 15-year-old daughter, who has Asperger's syndrome.

While Greta does not communicate verbally much, her mother said the girl's actions offer the best feedback about the new program at the Franklin County 4-H Therapeutic Riding Center.

"Every Friday, she's dressed and ready to go," Holly Bortfeld said.

Summit Endowment established the therapeutic riding center's new program dedicated to autistic riders. Using contributions from Summit Health, which owns Chambersburg and Waynesboro, Pa., hospitals, the Summit Endowment distributed more than $400,000 in grants to nonprofit organizations this year.

"They're going to be looking at how the program improves the lives of children with autism," said Ann Spottswood, Summit Endowment manager.

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"Because autism is such a prevalent disease all over the place, they wanted to provide a treatment that may be not so well-known," said Leah Good, newly hired director of the riding center program.

Good hopes to publish research about how horseback riding affects autistic children and young adults. Doing so could prompt health-insurance providers to start paying for the therapy, she said.

"Nothing is covered for their treatment," Bortfeld said.

"Not all the families (with autistic children) have the funds to pay for treatments like this," Good said, saying she was frustrated when the riding center began charging $20 a lesson recently.

Good, a 2006 graduate of Chambersburg's Wilson College, feels that therapeutic riding can improve communication skills, eye contact, self-esteem, assertiveness and planning skills.

"I want to see mostly that this is something the kids enjoy and want to put the time into," she said.

Paula Smith, of Chambersburg, said her son, Donnie, used to feed the ducks on Franklin Farm Lane and visit the horses at the center. The 7-year-old struggles with being separated from his mother, so a lot of his first lesson a month ago involved bonding with Good and working away from Mom.

"Leah showed him the horse he'd be riding and how to brush it," Smith said.

The autistic boy has been learning to be patient as he grooms both sides of the horse before riding, his mother said.

"If they're behaving positively and are calm, they get more time with their horse," Good said.

A lot of the focus of the program will be on social skills, she said.

Bortfeld, of Orrtanna, Pa., is excited because one of the volunteers is the same age as her daughter.

"She doesn't have any kind of peer interaction," Bortfeld said.

Smith said her son has been coaxed into doing horseback activities he initially refused to do, citing a ball-throwing exercise as one example.

"As long as he's on the horse, he'll do anything," she said.

Both Bortfeld and Smith said they would recommend the fledgling program to other parents of autistic children. Good said the initial enrollment of 10 students will hopefully expand to 60 someday.

"I think it's a fun learning (experience) for the kids, and they don't realize they're learning," Smith said.

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