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Free Rein in the Ring

2-Day Equestrian Show in Burbank to Test Skills of 150 Disabled Athletes


BURBANK — Hope Hand has never let her disability become a liability.

Though the 48-year-old Internal Revenue Service agent from Newtown Square, Pa., was born with spina bifida and is paralyzed from the waist down, she began riding 20 years ago--her horse trotting and cantering beside other equestrians'.

"Horses are such wonderful animals," she said, sitting in her wheelchair. "Since I couldn't play team sports, this gave me a chance to participate in an activity with other able-bodied persons."

Hand is just one of 150 athletes with physical and mental disabilities who are competing today and Sunday at the 11th Annual California Network for Equestrian Therapy, Unlimited (CALNET) State Championships at Los Angeles Equestrian Center.

As the nation's largest competition for disabled riders, the event attracts competitors from abroad, across the country and more than 20 California-based therapeutic riding programs. Participants will exhibit their skills in several riding categories including dressage, jumping, equitation, and other horse show classes. Some 300 volunteers assist the riders, who range in age from 4 to 69, with disabilities including autism and blindness.

Hand has made the cross-country trek as a stop on her way to qualifying for the 2000 International Paralympic Games in Sydney, Australia.

"I get a special satisfaction from competing," Hand said. "I was an alternate in the last games in Atlanta. I hope to make the team this time."

Hiroto Watanabe, who also hopes to participate in the 2000 Games, traveled from Tokyo, Japan, to compete in this weekend's event. Another veteran rider, Watanabe suffers from spina bifida as well. He said he is one of a small but growing number of disabled Japanese riders.

"In my childhood, I watched western movies and I wanted to be a cowboy and ride a horse," said Watanabe, 50, president of the Tokyo Assn. of Disabled Equine Riders. "I can't run by myself but on a horse, I can run and go anyplace I want to go."

In addition to those who compete internationally, there are many other riders who love horses and participate as a way to remain active.

Lisa Anderson of Santa Rosa said she introduced horseback riding to her 10-year-old daughter Lauren two years ago to help build self-confidence. The bespectacled, freckle-faced Lauren, who was born with a congenital birth defect that has left her with one arm and both legs partially amputated, has the use of only two fingers but has no fear when riding her horse, Sammy.

"You don't see her disability when she's up on top of the horse," Anderson said. "When she has all her friends talking about how they play soccer and baseball, now she has her something to talk about on the playground."

The concept of therapeutic riding began in California in the early 1970s as a way to provide the disabled with an opportunity to integrate themselves into mainstream living. Today, the number of therapeutic riding schools in California and Nevada has grown to include about 85 horse clubs. Nationwide, there are more than 700 operating centers teaching more than 29,000 disabled equestrians.

"For a paraplegic, the movements of the horse work to strengthen some of the back muscles that one would use if they could walk," said Bryan McQueeney, the show's organizer, explaining the aspect of physical therapy that benefits the disabled. On the other hand, riders' self-esteem is raised as well, he said.

"Usually a disabled person has to rely on the support of others," said McQueeney's wife, Gloria Hamblin, program director of Ride-On Therapeutic Horsemanship in Chatsworth. "Now they're able to control a 1,200-pound horse and that makes them feel good about themselves."

Contestants will be judged according to their ability to complete a battery of exercises with their horse. Events include dressage, where mounted competitors maneuver the horse around a course completing turns and tricks, and equitation, in which riders are judged on their form.

Other contest categories are an obstacle course, vaulting, jumping, and costume, where participants dress themselves and their horses in festive regalia. For John "Ziggy" Zigler, 61, of Fullerton, who is blind, horseback riding has been a childhood dream come true.

"I grew up on a ranch but was never allowed to get on a horse," said Zigler, who also plays golf and is a professional actor.

"That has been a real incentive," he said. "You have to have a goal in life and I'm a real competitor."

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