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Standing Tall in the Saddle : Recreation: Vaulting program brings together youths and horses. It's proven to be a real confidence builder, particularly for the disabled.

August 25, 1993|MATTHEW HELLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Only a year ago, Anne-Marie Walbert was so hyperactive that sitting still in class or standing in line was an achievement.

But on a recent afternoon, the waif-like 10-year-old was a statuesque study in poise. Not only was she standing still, but she was doing it on the back of a moving horse--over five feet off the ground, her arms at full extension, her knees gently bending with the motion of the large animal beneath her.

"For her to be able to do what she's doing in a year of vaulting is quite excellent," said Virginia Manges, manager of Valley View Vaulters in Lake View Terrace.

Manges' nonprofit organization cites several other success stories such as that of Anne-Marie in its 13 years of teaching the art of vaulting--gymnastics on the back of a moving horse.

While most of its students are not handicapped, Valley View has made a point of welcoming those who are. Children with all manner of mental and physical handicaps, from autism to cerebral palsy, have taken quite naturally to a sport that might tax the nerve of even the most able-bodied.

"There is a magic between the horses and the vaulters," Manges said. "It gives the vaulters a self-assuredness. They can do something someone else can't do."

Valley View's philosophy is personified by its head coach. At age 11, Rick Hawthorne lost his left arm to bone cancer. With that handicap, trying to join in sports with his peers was an exercise in frustration. "I was always picked last or not picked at all," he recalled. "That was a real downer."

Hawthorne took up vaulting in 1977 while studying for a degree in animal science at Cal Poly Pomona and has achieved a bronze medal rating, the third highest, in a sport that was staged as a demonstration at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. As a teacher of the handicapped, he believes that the key is to treat his students the same way he would anyone else.

"We make no special allowances for the handicapped," he said. "No one's out there saying you have to do it a little differently."

"This isn't like Little League where only the good ones get to play," agreed Mary Walbert, Anne-Marie's mother. "They're all part of the same team here."

Previously based at stables in Sunland and Tujunga, Valley View now conducts classes in Lake View Terrace on a property that it acquired in November, which includes a training enclosure and stalls for eight horses. Drivers passing by on adjacent Foothill Boulevard often stop to gawk at the vaulting spectacle. "It's great advertising," Manges said.

The students in a recent class of seven included twins who have both been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, their sister, who has a congenital defect in her hip, and two hyperactive children. Several, including Anne-Marie, were members of the Valley View team that placed third at the national vaulting championships in Ventura last month. Seven teams competed in that event.

During the lesson, a 17-hand, Percheron draught horse called Molly circled the enclosure as Hawthorne guided it with a long rein. One by one, the children trotted beside the horse, grabbed a leather loop dangling from its flank and hauled themselves onto a strap across its back. They then performed several maneuvers, turning through 360 degrees or balancing on one knee. Their exercises complete, they leaped off the horse while it was still moving.

Hawthorne stressed that the school has an exemplary safety record. "We teach them how to roll off the horse and they know how to get out of the exercise so it doesn't become dangerous," he said.

Valley View national team member Reece Apmadoc, 7, scoffed at the idea of being afraid: "It doesn't scare us at all."

Anne-Marie, fresh from performing her "stand" on Molly's back, was full of vaulting ambition.

"I want to be my own coach," she said. "I'll stick at it until I'm gold (medal-rated). I want to see if I can make it to the world championships."

Hawthorne had no doubt about the youngsters' potential. "I'm going to do a Pat Riley. Next year, I think they have a very good chance of winning the national championships."

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