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For Special Olympics Equestrians, Urge to Try Is Gold

May 25, 1989|MIKE HISERMAN | Times Staff Writer

With the spoils from two days of competition draped around her neck, Anne Marie Pellerito left the Ventura County fairgrounds Sunday minus what she came for.

She had earned three ribbons and two medals. A nice take, but the medals were silver--not the color she had in mind.

Her goal had been gold. Anne Marie said as much during the family's 80-mile drive from their home in Torrance to the fairgrounds a few days earlier.

"I can do it. I can win," she had said.

It was a statement that might have caused Anne Marie's father, Pete, to straddle a few road reflectors with the car. And rightfully so.

Before preparing for the Special Olympics State Equestrian Championships, Anne Marie, who is mentally retarded, never wanted to win anything.

"It's hard for people to understand," said Vicki Pellerito, Anne Marie's mother. "Just for her to want something. And to say she could do something--she'd never said anything like that before in her whole life."

Time of Change

Seven months ago that started to change. It was then, at the urging of an acquaintance, the Pelleritos decided to call Pete Peters, owner of Peters Arabians Ranch in Moorpark.

Working with horses, the Pelleritos hoped, just might motivate one very listless 15-year-old.

For Anne Marie, it was even more than that. In fact, Vicki Pellerito says, it may have saved her life.

Last November, shortly after beginning weekly riding sessions with Peters, Anne Marie had an operation to remove a golf ball-sized tumor from her neck.

The doctors prepared the family for the worst. "They expected that she wouldn't be able to talk or swallow, and possibly not live," Vicki Pellerito said.

Yet, only six days after the surgery, Anne Marie was back in school.

"The horses were such a total motivation," Vicki said. "When your whole life is so difficult, sometimes it's like, 'Why try? Why get up in the morning?' Now she's got a reason."

Peters, 67, a ruddy-faced man with a size-XL stomach spilling out of his medium-size jeans, thoroughly enjoys being part of that reason.

He and his wife, Opal, are horse ranchers by trade, volunteers by choice. Strangely enough, they managed to find a niche where they could blend their passions.

For the past six years they have opened their ranch on Saturdays to teach riding skills and horse care to the handicapped.

From six to 15 students show up at a session, where they might be joined by almost two dozen volunteer coaches and handlers.

Most of the time prospective riders are referred to Peters. But, occasionally he does some recruiting on his own.

Peters saw Christopher Strubert, a 9-year old with cerebral palsy, in a Moorpark grocery store.

"Why hasn't that kid been out to my ranch?" Peters said to Judi Strubert, Christopher's mother, before introducing himself.

Christopher, who needs the aid of a walker to get around, has been riding for more than a year now, and with obvious improvement to his general coordination.

"His balance has gotten a lot better and he's very relaxed and self-confident on a horse," Judi Strubert said. "It gives him a sense of independence. He's the one in charge when he sits up there."

And notice how he does sit up there, Peters is quick to point out. He sits straight and tall.

"When I first saw Christopher, he'd just drag around in that walker," Peters said. "Now he wants to throw that walker away and use his crutches."

Those who can afford it pay a nominal fee for weekly two-hour lessons, but it is not a profitable venture.

No matter, Peters says, eventually everybody gets rewarded--the volunteers for their time, and the riders for their effort.

The equestrian championship climaxed that effort. Peters Arabians was a co-sponsor of the show, along with Southern California Edison Co. and the Kiwanis Club.

In all, about 150 volunteers passed out advice and encouragement to 136 competitors representing 11 clubs from Nevada and California.

The events were similar to those seen in regular equestrian shows, only modified for maximum safety. Less experienced riders walked horses through their events with the aid of handlers on three sides. But advanced riders--competing unattended--had to clear 18-inch fences in the jumping competition.

There were 26 classifications, and the field was split when more than eight were entered in a category. The reason: There were medals for the top three finishers, ribbons for the next five. No need for anyone to dismount empty-handed.

Which is not to say that no one left a little disappointed.

Jeff Watlington, 37, won three medals in advanced categories but was clearly disappointed in his fourth-place finish in pole bending, a kind of slalom on horseback.

Still, he managed a smile and a congratulations for each of the athletes who had finished ahead of him. "We have to be gracious losers," he said, citing a part of the Special Olympics oath: "The important part is to be brave in the attempt."

To that end, everyone involved in the championships--the first held in Ventura County--had reason to be pleased. Gold-medal winners at the state level are eligible for nomination to the 1991 International Special Olympics in Minneapolis.

"These kids are competitive," Peters said. "But most of all they're out to have fun. We'll have a horse show and if one kid gets a blue ribbon and another kid gets a green ribbon, they'd just as soon trade. Colors to them mean nothing. The part they like most is getting out there and trying."

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