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To Feel the Joy of Sitting Tall in the Saddle

July 27, 1999|MARNELL JAMESON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"We going straight to the Wild, Wild West," sing four boys, who are performing their rendition of the rap tune from Will Smith's futuristic western film. As they sing, they do a choreographed dance of their own creation.

The performance takes place outside the horse ring at the Fran Joswick Therapeutic Riding Center in San Juan Capistrano. And it seems fitting, as the boys wait their turn to participate in the highlight of their week at camp: a horse lesson and a western trail ride.

But this isn't any camp, and it's no ordinary riding facility. The camp is for kids who have sickle cell disease, and the riding center specializes in therapeutic horseback riding for disabled youths and adults.

Sponsored by the Sickle Cell Disease Research Foundation, Camp Sickle Cell is free for the campers except for the $25 registration fee. Kids from ages 7 to 14 spend a week at Lazy W Ranch, off Ortega Highway in San Juan Capistrano.

The campers come to the riding center in groups, 10 per shift, two shifts per morning. By the end of the week, each of the 110 campers has had a morning with the horses. The session includes hands-on horse grooming instruction, a riding lesson in the ring and a trail ride along the San Juan foothills.

"It's the highlight of their week," says camp director Mary Brown, who has directed the camp for 25 years and is now president of the foundation. "Most of these kids have never been on a horse before."

Although novel to these kids, the experience is business as usual for the folks at Joswick. For 20 years, they have been helping disabled youths and adults through the therapy only a horse can provide. Last year 350 volunteers logged 21,000 hours helping people with disabilities benefit from "equitherapy."

Of the more than 550 such riding centers across the country, Joswick is one of only a few qualified to train therapeutic-riding instructors.

Joy Rittenhouse is one. Rittenhouse, who had polio as a girl, found horseback riding strengthened her. She became a competitive rider, and in 1994 she came to the Joswick Center to become a therapeutic-riding instructor. Two years later she started Move A Child Higher (MACH I), a riding program in Pasadena for kids with disabilities.

The reason riding is so physically beneficial, said Jane Lewis, volunteer coordinator for the Joswick Center, is that the 3-D motion of a horse's walk closely resembles the human walk. The therapy especially benefits those in wheelchairs, including spinal cord injury patients and those with cerebral palsy and multiple sclerosis.

"Not only do these people get the sensation of walking and feeling tall, which they never get in their wheelchairs, but the warmth of the horse loosens their spasticity, and the riding improves their balance, posture and coordination. Plus it's a boost for their mind."

As camper Simonette King, 9, of Cerritos, put it: "What I like best is that I have control."

Sickle cell disease is an inherited blood disorder in which normally round red blood cells are shaped like Cs, or, as one camper explains it, "It's like having bananas in your blood." As the sickle-shaped cells flow through the blood vessels, they catch and pile up causing organ damage, acute pain and sometimes stroke. About one in 400 African Americans have the disease, which is also seen, though much less frequently, in Latinos. The average life expectancy for those with the disease is 45.

"Because a sickle cell crisis can happen at any time, the disease is very disempowering," says Dr. Tom Hofstra, a pediatric hematologist who works at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles. "Riding a horse gives these kids some of that power back."

Hofstra says the days he volunteers as camp doctor restore him, too. "I love seeing these kids having fun in a nonmedical environment. It's therapeutic for me."

Fran Joswick Therapeutic Riding Center, (949) 240-8441; MACH I, (626) 798-1222; Camp Sickle Cell or the Sickle Cell Disease and Research Foundation, (323) 299-3600.

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