Anne Marie Bonnefil strode up to a 17-hands high chestnut thoroughbred called Nasa.
"You must be the Wilt Chamberlain of horses," she said to Nasa, an ex-show hunter and jumper. Then Bonnefil, 23, donned a helmet, mounted the horse and prepared to ride, English style.
The scene looked typical of any stable, except that Anne Marie is autistic and is part of a therapeutic riding program called Heads Up.
Headquartered in Saugus, the program is the first of its kind in the Santa Clarita Valley. It was started informally in June of last year and incorporated seven months later by Nancy Pitchford, 43.
Heads Up offers physical and emotional stimulation in the non-clinical setting of the 7 1/2-acre Amber Rose Ranch. The program's 15 youth and adult riders have disabilities such as scoliosis (curvature of the spine), cerebral palsy (damage to the brain's motor area) and paraplegia.
Once a week, in the early evening or on weekends, the riders come to this hillside setting and, for nearly an hour, are unencumbered by wheelchairs or a sense of disability.
"Riding a horse takes every muscle that you own," said Pitchford, who has ridden for 36 years. "You have to learn to use every muscle independently and it takes a great deal of coordination.
"You try to stretch them, you try to stretch their physical capabilities. We develop games to inspire, to motivate."
Although Heads Up is an autonomous group, it is affiliated with the National Foundation of Happy Horsemanship for the Handicapped. Pitchford was certified as a therapeutic riding instructor at the foundation's Pennsylvania headquarters. The therapy program was begun in England in 1964, according to Pitchford.
A cool breeze blew on a recent clear Wednesday evening as tiny 5-year-old Bryon (Bucky) Helfrich of Arleta, who has cerebral palsy, was helped onto a horse. He is able to ride lying on his stomach or sitting, if aided by a rider behind him.
"It helps massage his internal organs," his father, Rob, said, as he watched Bucky circle the arena. "And it gets him relaxed enough so he can sit up. Sitting up helps with his coordination. The movement of the horse exercises his joints.
"When we first started coming, he was pretty stiff. One time, after riding, we put him on his tummy and he scooted for the first time. Since then, he's had surgery on both hips. Now, all I have to do is tell him we're going to ride and he starts laughing and smiling. Nothing pleases him more than riding that horse."
Pitchford does not hold a professional degree in a medical or therapeutic field, but to run the program relies on the administrative and interpersonal skills acquired during 14 years as a personnel trainer at Lockheed Corp.
The first riders Pitchford worked with were a deaf boy and a girl with cerebral palsy. She invested $2,000 and sought volunteers to work with other children. There are now 19 volunteers, yet Pitchford still devotes about 30 hours a week to caring for the horses, writing newsletters, lecturing and soliciting donations. She also is assistant manager of training at Valley Federal Savings & Loan Assn.
Heads Up volunteers Joan Marth, Jeannine Browning, Lisa Irvan and Sue DeJaegher feed, clean, train and groom the horses and maintain the corrals.
"It has become our avocation," said Irvan, a Sherman Oaks travel agent.
Others, like 34-year-old Colleen Zimmerle of Valencia and her daughter, Shannon, 13, go to the ranch each night to groom or ride the docile horses.
"This is the highlight of our day," Zimmerle said as she cleaned near the corrals. "There's a great camaraderie among the volunteers."
In Heads Up, riders primarily learn to ride English, although often starting on their backs or stomachs to stimulate weak muscles or aid circulation to paralyzed areas. Young riders often are assigned at-home exercises to improve riding techniques. Riders are asked to contribute $12.50 for an hour session.
Many younger riders are referred through a local clinic and residential home that no longer can motivate them to exercise, she said. The Jay Nolan Center for Autism in Saugus and the state-run California Children Services in Canyon Country have referred children to the program.
Evaluated Twice a Year
Pitchford evaluates each rider twice a year, assessing goals, setting new goals and spotlighting accomplishments. Reports are sent to the riders' therapists and counselors.
Anne Marie Bonnefil, for example, can perform all riding tasks, but lacks concentration and coordination skills. The volunteer staff keeps her focused on carrying out riding commands from Pitchford, who stands centered in the 75-by-125-foot arena and speaks through a bullhorn.
Anne Marie is among five of six residents at Placerita House (a home operated for autistic adults by the Nolan center) enrolled in weekly riding lessons, according to Lori Shepard, residential program manager.