Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Gentle horses work hard to help those with special needs

Times Correspondent | Tuesday, December 30, 2008 |

Strings of colored lights twinkled throughout the stable. In front of each stall, a small evergreen tree awaited decorations, and a chorus of voices sang Christmas carols to the horses housed in the stalls.

Children lined up to get designs painted on their cheeks, and guests nibbled on cookies. As strong winds blew outside, hot chocolate helped chase the wintry chill away inside the Hobart stable.

The Fifth Annual Deck the Stalls two weeks ago sponsored by Exceptional Equestrians Unlimited brought together dozens of children and adults who have a loving connection with the horses donated and specially trained to work with riders with special needs.

Currently finishing its 29th year, EEU provides educational and therapeutic riding instruction for people with special needs. Volunteers run the nonprofit charity, which depends on fund-raisers and donations from individuals, businesses and service organizations.

Some volunteers care for the horses and the stable, while others train the horses or raise money for the group.

The program began in Valparaiso in 1979 and moved to the stable at 5307B 61st Ave. in Hobart six years ago. EEU is a member of North American Riding for the Handicapped Inc. and is an affiliate agency of United Way of Porter County.

At the Christmas-themed event, Danielle Lowe of Munster greeted her favorite horse, Shade, a 20-something-year-old American Quarter Horse. Lowe, a 14-year-old Munster High School freshman with cerebral palsy, began taking horseback-riding lessons in August.

Danielle's physical therapist at St. Margaret Mercy in Dyer recommended the program.

"Her posture is better, and her leg muscles have strengthened," says Danielle's mother, Ly Lowe.

"It's been a great thing."

Monica Gutierrez also has seen major benefits from horseback riding, says her mother, Maria Gutierrez. The 7-year-old from East Chicago now is able to stretch out more because of her riding lessons.

Diagnosed with a rare metabolic disorder, Monica receives physical, occupational and speech therapy. But one of her favorite activities is horseback riding.

"She loves it," Gutierrez said of the program. "She's made big progress. She's listening more."

EEU has touched many lives during its years of operations, says Laura Rochester of Valparaiso, who serves as volunteer secretary and is on the board of directors.

Those taking lessons range in age from 4 to those in their 50s, and have a wide range of special needs, including Down Syndrome, cerebral palsy and autism.

"We offer lessons from April through October, which cost $240 for eight weeks plus a $50 registration fee. It all goes to help take care of the horses, to lease the stable and all the utilities," Rochester says.

Mounting platforms, safety headgear and stirrups and adaptive equipment allow those with physical and mental disabilities to get on the horses and ride.

"They're taught how to ride and how to stop the horse," Rochester says.

"For those who can't speak, we teach them to tap the horse's withers. Parents are always amazed how well their children do on the horses. Their bodies are more flexible when they're moving with the horse."

In addition, riders benefit from a sense of accomplishment, Rochester says.

"We do exercises to stretch their bodies and different games," she says. "There are a lot of smiles and joys."

Only gentle, quiet horses are accepted into the EEU program, Rochester says. Most are older horses in their 20s and 30s, like Daisy, a 33-year-old Appaloosa.

However, Harley, a 9-year-old red roan-colored American Quarter Horse recently joined the herd.

"Normally we wouldn't accept a young horse, but Harley has a 'good mind.' He can get distracted, but he's gentle," Rochester says.

"Different horses do different things for each child."

The horses go through rigorous training to prepare for carrying riders with special needs and the volunteer walkers who accompany them.

"They have to be willing to have people around them," she says. Rochester says it takes a lot to keep the program going. All donations directly benefit the horses and riders.

Recent fund-raisers for EEU, including a Ride-A-Thon and chili cook-off with silent auction, netted the organization $9,500, says Rondi Wightman of Porter, president of EEU. Wal-Mart and Best Buy also each donated $1,000.

Even with declining economic times, EEU continues to provide a special service for its exceptional riders, Rochester says.

"Somehow, God always provides," she says.

FYI: To donate to Exceptional Equestrians Unlimited or for more information, eeu1tripod.com or (219) 945-0726.

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