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Riding Program Gives Disabled Leg Up in Life

Liz Helms plans a benefit for Ahead With Horses on Sunday. More than 200 youths take her therapeutic classes each week.


It has been three decades since Liz Helms began her work with disabled children at her riding facility in Sun Valley. Now, she's preparing for this Sunday's annual "Ahead With Horses--Fun Day and Barbecue," her 15th fund-raising event.

And she is proud to see that the use of equestrian training to improve the physical and mental condition of autistic and other severely disabled kids has become a nationally accepted practice.

Each week, more than 200 children participate in Ahead With Horses, a nonprofit therapeutic/developmental riding program. Over 100,000 children have been served since 1968. The "Ahead" part of the name, Helms said, is actually an acronym that stands for Accelerated Habilitation Education and Development.

Helms' work will be the subject of a report on the Discovery Channel in September. And last week, CBS' "48 Hours" described related work by Temple Grandin, a professor at Colorado State University.

"Helms' program is the fore-runner of them all," said Stephanie Siemens, president of the American Vaulting Assn., an organization devoted to gymnastics on horseback while the horse is moving. Nowadays the association includes disabled kids and adults in events around the country.


In addition to her work at the riding facility, Helms and her associates deliver research presentations at medical seminars around the country. These seminars are devoted to new ways of improving the condition of children with cerebral palsy and who are autistic, hyperactive, blind or have forms of mental retardation.

"Liz Helms has done a magnificent job of getting doctors involved," said Siemens. "These children don't respond to traditional treatments, and are referred to organizations [that provide this sort of therapy] by neurologists, physical therapists and educators."

The results of this therapy are so marked, said Rick Hawthorne, a Valley-based vaulting coach, that the Vaulting Assn. does not distinguish between competitors who are or are not disabled.

"I treat everyone of these kids like they're going for the gold medal," he said. Hawthorne, who operates Valley View Vaulters in Lake View Terrace, has been including disabled kids in his own program since 1980.

"The horses sense something about the children," he said, "and they are very tuned in to their special needs." Hawthorne is disabled, having lost an arm to cancer, and received training from Liz Helms.

This spring, Childrens Hospital in Los Angeles hosted a national symposium on new research into Fragile-X Syndrome, a genetic mutation now thought to affect the mental and physical development of one in every 1,000 males and one in every 2,000 females.

One presenter, Deborah LeCover, the parent of a child with the condition, described how the Ahead With Horses program benefited her son Daniel.

Starting with autism so severe that "he was afraid of everything, even walking from the carpet onto a wood floor, we were desperate." Daniel progressed to being able to ride standing up in a saddle, LeCover reported to the symposium group.


Folks attending the event this weekend in Sun Valley will see about 50 kids demonstrating such derring-do. When former president Ronald Reagan attended the event in 1992, he was so impressed with what he saw that he donated two horses to Helms' project.

The majority of the kids in Helms' program are autistic. For a poignant and scientifically compelling look at the connection between autistic people and animals--and the therapeutic benefits to be derived from such contact--Helms and her supporters recommend Grandin's books.

This Colorado woman overcame severe autism to move on to a distinguished career in science. According to Loraine Wolnisty, a registered physical therapist with Los Angeles County Children's Services and vice president of Ahead with Horses, Grandin's writing reveals "what is going on in their [the autistic person's] mind, particularly when they relate to animals."


* Event: Ahead With Horses--Annual Fun Day and Barbecue. 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday, 9311 Del Arroyo Drive in Sun Valley. Features petting zoo, live music, auction, craft booths, treasure hunt and equestrian demonstration by disabled kids. Donation: adults, $12; kids 4-12, $6; under 3, free. Barbecue included with admission, served noon-4 p.m. Proceeds benefit children with disabilities. For information about this event and Ahead With Horses program, call (818) 767-6373.

* Books: "Emergence: Labelled Autistic," by Temple Grandin. $10 from Academic Therapy Publications (800) 422-7249, and $11.99 from Warner Books in August. "Thinking in Pictures--and Other Reports From My Life With Autism," by Grandin. $22.95 from Doubleday, and $12 from Vintage Books this fall.

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