"Isabel, I want you to turn Jackson toward ‘A' and stop him before you get there," says junior Margaret Whitney, directing the rider to a spot in the ring. Six-year-old Isabel tells her horse to "walk on" and pulls on the reigns, albeit a little suddenly. But abruptness is to be expected: Isabel was born with cerebral palsy, a condition that causes continuous muscle spasms and impaired control over movement.
Whitney is spending her Friday afternoon volunteering at the Rock Creek Park Horse Center in Washington, D.C. She is teaching a class in Therapeutic Riding (TR), a program created to help children and adults with cerebral palsy, autism, emotional distress, Attention Deficit
Disorder and emotional or mental disabilities ride horses.
Whitney spends at least four afternoons a week at the center as the only teenager who comes regularly to volunteer her time with the TR kids. She devotes two of the four days to working with disabled riders and says the time is well worth it. "I have tons of fun with them," she says with a smile.
Whitney began teaching regular lessons two and a half years ago and started working in TR last year when one of the directors was in pinch and asked her to help with a TR rider. "It worked out really well, so I just kept doing it, and it became a regular thing," she says.
According to program coordinator and head instructor Amber Power-Shickler, TR helps participants both mentally and physically, although the specific benefits vary according to each child's needs.
Power-Shickler says that the rhythm of riding allows those with cerebral palsy to stretch and become more flexible. However, she says the benefits are not limited to physical results. "[TR] helps the kids with self esteem and focus," she says, "and it's fun."
Whitney thinks that TR has greatly improved Isabel's muscle control and that she has made a lot of progress in her riding skills. "Isabel used to always have to have someone holding on to her. If we stopped paying attention to her she would start to slide off," says Whitney. "Now she can steer the horse by herself, and she can trot with someone holding onto her."
Power-Shickler says that Whitney is essential in the TR lessons because of her positive attitude with the children. "She's extremely patient with all the therapy kids, and she has a way of making it fun and making them laugh. She puts them at ease before and during the lesson," she says.
During an average lesson, students either ride on the trails that surround the center or practice in the ring. Both environments have their benefits for the rider, says Whitney. "On trail there are lots of distractions, but the riding is easier. In the ring there's less distractions, but they have to be able to do a lot more things, like stopping and steering," she explains.
The determination of the TR riders was refreshing for Whitney. "A lot of kids today seem really spoiled," she says. "[TR] kids appreciate their parents bringing them in to ride. They don't complain half as much as the other kids, and they're always ready to do what you ask them to."
Whitney says she loves working in TR and gets a real kick out of watching a determined child make improvements. "It's really rewarding to see progress in my students," she says. "It makes me feel good to see all their efforts paying off."
Sally Colwell. Sally Colwell is co-centerspread editor and is tremendously excited to be on paper this year. In her free time she enjoys reading novels, drawing, not practicing the violin and attending demolition derbies. During the summer she is a counselor at Burgundy Center for Wildlife Studies … More »