HARTVILLE, Ohio – Even the horses have to audition to join the program the Pegasus Farm riding facility just east of Hartville, Ohio.
Here, everything is arranged around the needs of the children and adults who come to ride and, by riding, add a measure of control to their lives.
“They told us this would be good for him,” said Keith Miller of Akron about the benefit of riding for his son Kevin, 6, who suffers from severe cerebral palsy.
“I’m not the one to ask whether it has really helped him or not. But he enjoys it, and that’s all that matters.”
“He’s not your average kid who comes here. He can’t support himself upright on the horse. We have to hold him, and that keeps getting harder as he get bigger.
“But he enjoys it, and that’s all that matters to me. There isn’t that much he can do that he enjoys. Anything he likes works for me.”
From one horse.
Pegasus Farm – a therapeutic riding center serving people with disabilities of all kinds, mental, physical and behavioral – has grown since 1985 from one horse in a paddock with five orthopedically handicapped riders to a major operation with 34 horses and more than 200 riders each week.
They range from a 3-year-old Down’s syndrome child to a 73-year-old stroke victim.
Located on 120 acres of land, the farm has both an indoor and an outdoor arena and a riding trail that crosses the property and winds through a small wooded area.
The first students were brought by a group of Canton teachers who wanted more for their handicapped students than a life in front of a TV. They got the inspiration from Christopher Reeves.
The premise on which therapeutic riding is based is independence, said Kathy Rubbo, director of Pegasus Farm.
Many of these people don’t experience independence in their daily lives. If they are confined to a wheel chair, they are always being pushed around by someone else. They often need help for the simplest things in life.
“But when they get on a horse, they are in control. The horse provides them a means of locomotion, and they can go anyplace they decide.
Do what they can.
In order to foster that independence, she said riders are also encouraged to do everything for themselves that they are able to do.
The tack for every horse is easily accessible, and labeled by name and color coded, so riders can get it out and put it away.
Everyone who is able saddles his or her horse. If that’s not possible, they help as much as they can.
There is a mounting elevator in the stable to bring those who can’t mount a horse up to the level of the horse’s back. But if they are able, Rubbo said, they are encouraged to use the mounting block.
Even if the horse has to be led, the rider has the reins in his hands, and is given as much control over the horse as he is able to maintain.
“Each of them begins to think of the horse they ride as their own,” Rubbo said. “They all seem to think they are the only one who rides that horse.”
And when they are out on the trail, she said, they talk to the horses, and tell them everything.
Hope for benefits.
The parents who bring their children to Pegasus for the once-a-week riding lessons are primarily sold on the program because their children enjoy themselves and because it provides the youth with that experience of independence. But parents also express some hope that their child will benefit from the physical therapy aspect of the program.
The theory is that the horse recreates a normal walking gait for the human who sits on its back. The motion is transferred into the rider through the seat bones, pelvis, and into the spinal column where it may stimulate neural development.
Russo said they use only English saddles, which keep the rider in closer contact with the horse than Western saddles.
Marcia Gier of Navarre brings her son Bryan to ride. He suffers from apraxia, a neural disorder that has left him mute.
Riding, she said, is a way he can do something by himself and without her. He loves it.
The horses at Pegasus Farm are what Rubbo calls a pre-geriatric herd. Most are past their prime, although they have to be basically sound and mentally stable to be able to do the job they are required to do.
“It isn’t difficult work for them,” Rubbo said, “but they are being pushed and pulled and given contradictory commands, and sometimes their nerves really do get fried.”
The farm has relied primarily on donations for horses, she said, but it cannot be a retirement home for older ponies.
“We ask for a trial every time someone asks to donate a horse,” she said. Only about one in 12 prove to have the stability and nature that make them suitable for the program.
But people do think Pegasus Farm is an ideal place for their horses when they can no longer keep them. The farm recently received a horse from a man who is dying of cancer. He wanted the horse where he knew it would be well cared for.
The herd is also a little bit of everything. There is a need for every kind and size of horse, from ponies to draft horses. There are also two miniature horses to introduce horses to those kids in wheelchairs who are still afraid of the animals.
Vaulting team. Because the stable was able to acquire a pair of Percherons, a mare and her 4-year-old son, the farm has been training the young male for vaulting and has recently started a vaulting team.
Another new addition is the Pegasus Farm 4-H club. About 70 percent of the members of the club are handicapped, with the remaining members coming from the teenage volunteers.
According to the adviser, Pegasus teacher Diane Collins, the group is planning to show at the Stark County Fair this summer.
“The volunteer members of the club have their own horses. Some of the group that rides here should also be able to show, and they will have to rely on the horses here.
The volunteers, Rubbo said, are the lifeblood of Pegasus Farm, or, as one grateful mother described them, “the wind beneath its wings.”
They put in 17,000 hours each year, and make the program possible. The farm charges $15 an hour for the lessons, but it takes $35 an hour to put handicapped riders on the horses. Without volunteer workers of all kinds, Rubbo said it would be impossible.
Carolyn Caresea, who nominated the program for the J.C. Penney Golden Rule Award, said the most important thing they offer is “their gift of emotional support, a smile, words of encouragement, a gentle touch.”
Her autistic daughter has responded to the volunteers’ patience by improving in many ways.
Rubbo has developed a Girl Scout junior horse lovers badge program for 11- and 12-year-old girls. “They can start volunteering when they are 14. If we get them out here to work with and ride the horses, we can hopefully get them hooked. They already know they feel comfortable around the horses.”
For the last two years, Pegasus Farms has been selected by the Monty Roberts organization to be the beneficiary of an appearance by the well-known horse gentler.
Robert will present a demonstration of his techniques of horse training at the Canton Civic Center at 7:30 p.m., April 21, with proceeds from the event going to Pegasus Farm.
Tickets are available from the farm at 330-935-2300.
(You can contact Jackie Cummins at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 23, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.)