Ann Greaves dreamed, as do many adolescent girls, of riding a horse someday. But unlike other 11-year-old girls, Ann could not participate in riding programs at most stables. Because of a birth defect, she is missing part of an arm and a leg, and her other limbs are shortened.
But that hasn't stopped her. At the Orange County Riding Center in San Juan Capistrano--a nationally accredited therapeutic riding center for the disabled--Ann has learned how to post to the trot and signal a horse to turn. Now she is learning how to jump, a task that can be challenging for able-bodied riders.
"I didn't think I could do it," she says from atop a horse in the riding arena. "I'll admit I was a teeny bit nervous when I started. Now I feel more confident in all of my life, in doing things I didn't think I could do. I want to really learn how to jump and go into competitions."
It's not an impossible dream. Several disabled riders have competed successfully in various equestrian disciplines--including an East Coast woman who had lost an arm but rode in shows at the international dressage level, guiding her mount through the intricate movements with her prosthesis.
Students come to the Orange County Riding Center with various disabilities, but they share the same motivation: the desire to ride.
Jim, 8, fell into a neighbor's swimming pool when he was a toddler. The accident caused anoxia--lack of oxygen to the brain. Totally dependent since then for his needs, Jim had not been able to speak or use his muscles. Three months after he began weekly riding therapy, Jim was able to hold himself upright for periods of 30 to 45 seconds. He now makes efforts to use his voice, and the pony he rides responds immediately by walking or halting.
Rick, 21, had been a college athlete, receiving football and basketball scholarships. While he was backpacking in the wilderness he had an accident and suffered a major spinal cord injury. Now paralyzed from the chest down, he transfers himself from his wheelchair to the horse with minimal staff assistance. Through weekly therapeutic exercise at the riding center, Rick has been able to resume a favorite portion of his life: backpacking through wooded trails--on horseback.
Frances Joswick, director of the program, says: "The horse is the therapist. The rider can form a therapeutic relationship with the horse that is non-judgmental and unlike any negative experiences that he may have had with a human therapist."
In addition, she says, there are physical benefits: improvement of muscle tone, posture, equilibrium, rhythm and tactile stimulation. "Many of the riders boost themselves out of wheelchairs to mount the horses and experience a new freedom," she says.
Joswick was among a group of equestrian enthusiasts, medical professionals and parents of disabled children who founded Orange County Riding Center 10 years ago. The program began with one pony, two student riders, three volunteers and an instructor. It has grown to provide weekly therapeutic riding instruction to 80 disabled youngsters and adults.
The riding center is one of two programs in the nation approved by North American Riding for the Handicapped to train instructors for therapeutic riding programs. Every summer, new instructors arrive at the center from all over the country--Maine, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Colorado and Washington state. The 160-hour course, supported by a grant from the James Irvine Foundation, prepares the participants to develop their own centers for disabled riders.
To involve the community in the center, which utilizes many volunteers, a Sept. 17 benefit barbecue is being planned. It will feature students from the center in riding demonstrations.
The Orange County Riding Center is at 26282 Oso Road, San Juan Capistrano. For more information, call (714) 240-8441.
Darlene Sordillo, an author of two books on horse training and competition, covers equestrian events for The Times. Her column appears every Saturday. Readers may send horse-related news to her at: Orange County Life, The Times, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa 92626.