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More MS news articles for May 2003

Development displaces therapeutic riders program; search for home and help begins

Wednesday, May 28, 2003
By Roxann Moore
Staff Reporter

Nine-year-old Hannah Hitchens sits quietly, straddling her mother's knee watching the activity going on around her. An occasional soft sneeze interrupts her view of the horse and rider making their way around the indoor circuit.

Hannah has had her turn for the day, but that doesn't bother her. She keeps watching the horse and rider, Jordan Suit, 9.

Hannah's mother, Maria Hitchens, smiles as she wipes Hannah's face and introduces both of them.

She talks enthusiastically about the Southern Delaware Therapeutic and Recreational Horseback Riding Inc. program her daughter and many other individuals participate in. She tells how important it is to them and the little pleasures they glean from it.

"For a half-hour a week, they are taller than everybody else. Instead of looking up at everybody, they get to look down," says Hitchens of her daughter, Hannah, and the other participants of the program.

Hannah and Jordan both use wheelchairs to get around most of the time.

The program helps the girls escape the confines of the chairs as they ride around the indoor trail. If they know it is physical therapy, they certainly don't mind.

David Waybright, Jordan's stepfather, says both girls look forward to coming to the stable each week.

"It's something that's just for them," Waybright says. He and his wife, Lauretta Waybright, have four daughters. Jordan is one of triplets. While the other girls play softball, Jordan's activity is horseback riding.

Hitchens and Waybright pause their conversation as Jordan stops the horse nearby to be readjusted in her seat by three volunteers who are sold on the program.

"Can I touch it with my hand," Jordan asks her helpers, Kerri Shelly, Kelly Smith and Georgia Truitt. Jordan's right arm muscles are tight and drawn up by her shoulder. She wants to put her right hand on the ring in front of her where she has her left.

"If you want to," comes the reply. Then Smith helps Jordan get her hand out of her coat sleeve.

"Go ahead see if you can do it now," another encourages Jordan. And Jordan tries. She reaches little by little moving closer to her goal. After a moment or two, she stops short of the ring. She has cerebral palsy, which causes decreased range of motion and increased muscle tone, according to Shelly. Jordan also has decreased lower extremity strength and sitting balance. Her endurance level is low, as is her weight-bearing level.

But some of these obstacles are overcome through her horseback riding sessions. Jordan is far from disappointed as those helping her ride tell her what a wonderful effort she made and ask her if she wants to continue riding or stop for the day.

Her answer was as expected, "Go forward," she tells the horse, and off he goes at a gentle gait.

The conversation begins again between Hitchens and Waybright.

"It's amazing to see a wheelchair-dependent child riding a horse," Hitchens said. "Look at them riding. They are so happy."

Jordan takes her last few laps around as Hannah looks on. Hannah reaches for a helmet sitting in the chair beside her and her mom. Hitchens tells her daughter she's done riding for the day. A flicker of disappointment crosses her face before she leans back into her mom's arms for a hug.

Hitchens smiles as she tells how much the program has helped Hannah.

"I guess for us, the physical benefits have made her stronger," Hitchens said.

Riding on the horse helps to stretch and stimulate muscles in ways simple physical therapy does not, according to Shelly. There are many things riders must do in order to stay upright on the horse even with three people holding them, thus exerting physical strength.

Riders must hold themselves upright and keep themselves centered. Shelly said the horses are very sensitive to the rider and usually stop when they feel the riders position change without being told.

The program provides a different type of therapy to individuals who have physical or emotional limitations and exercises them in a unique manner.

"The motion and heat of the horse not only aid a rider's blood circulation and reflexes," Shelly said, "but also gently exercises the rider's spinal column, joints and muscles."

This with "sensory and neurological input" helps to stimulate the rider's body and mind in a variety of ways. Although, few people may be aware of this program, they may recognize it from their history lessons. Shelly said similar programs were used in ancient Greece to help individuals who were unable to walk.

This free local program, which is dependent on donations and grants, was started in 1988 by Rehoboth Beach Kiwanis. It was designed for children from the Sussex Consortium, some of whom have severe emotional and behavioral problems.

"Our riders' challenges encompass head injuries, developmental delays, cerebral palsy, spina bifida, hemiplegia, multiple sclerosis, cancer, strokes, blindness, obsessive compulsive disorder and eating disorders," Shelly says. "Southern Delaware Therapeutic Horseback Riding also serves individuals in our community dealing with physical and sexual abuse, divorce, suicide, bereavement or substance abuse."

She said this sort of therapy helps those with emotional issues build trust with the horses when they have very little trust for anyone or anything.


There is little question that this program has helped so many people each in his own way, Shelly says. But now the volunteers, who work with disabled children and adults, need help from the community to continue operating their program.

They are hoping someone or some group can donate 15 to 20 acres of land in Sussex County where they can settle permanently. They will also need stables for the two horses they have, with room for at least one more, Shelly added.

They will also need a place for someone to live on the land as a full-time caretaker of the horses and property.

The location they had been using off of Route 23 just west of Five Points in Lewes is slated for development, and they moved the program across the street. They are temporarily located at Pam An Stables, Shelly says.

Additionally, she says the program director, Katarina Burroughs, moved back to Sweden permanently, somewhat adding to their difficult situation. Upon learning of Burroughs' departure, the three current volunteers, Shelly, Smith and Truitt, quickly signed up and attended a three-day certification program at Horse Power in Temple, N.H. earlier this month.

Certification permits each of the women to conduct riding sessions to individuals with disabilities, physical, emotional and social. However, program designers are in the process of separating those with physical disabilities from those with emotional and social ones, according to Shelly.

Shelly said the certification process required them to ride various patterns on horseback, and plan and carryout a lesson with two developmentally disabled students.

"Mounting and dismounting," Shelly explains of the training, "all sorts of stuff," each lesson must include.

Since its beginning, more than 100 clients have participated in the program, including children with special needs from the Cape Henlopen School District. Now, clients from across the county come to ride with classes available on Saturday mornings, too.

Shelly argues that the movement clients experience on horseback has yet to be duplicated mechanically and offers riders confidence and independence that you can't put a price tag on.

To learn more about the program or how to help keep it going, contact Shelly at (302) 645-5821. Send donations to: Southern Delaware Therapeutic and Recreational Horseback Riding Inc., P.O. Box 219, Nassau, DE 19969.

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