Where Riding Works Wonders

Members of a Maryland special-needs Venturing crew sample a remarkably effective program known as ‘therapeutic horseback riding.’

Outside the stables at a Maryland riding facility named The Retreat, Brian Buckmaster and his wheelchair were positioned close enough to a horse so the Venturer from Crew 1777 could touch the animal with a brush.

Docile and well trained, the horse wasn’t fazed by the chair’s bulky size and shiny metal or by Brian’s tender touch of him with brush bristles.

Brian’s concerns that the bristles might hurt or annoy the horse quickly vanished, replaced by a huge smile as he threw his head back and laughed with joy.

Venturer Donald Chepko takes his first horseback ride in more than 40 years as volunteers Caitlin Moore, left, and Emilie Durham guide his mount toward The Retreat’s riding arena.

Nearby, Anna Davis learned it was her turn next to get acquainted with the horse, and she jumped up and down, clapping happily.

It was the first experience with horses for Brian, who has cerebral palsy, and Anna, who is mentally retarded. While Brian already had joined Crew 1777, Anna was preparing to become a member.


Another Venturer excited about the visit was Paul Curfman, who organized the crew in June 2004. He was then 19 and an Eagle Scout, having achieved that rank despite disabilities that included brain damage following a stroke at age 6, repeated seizures, and liver and bone-marrow failures.

Because his disabilities had kept him from participating in many traditional Scouting activities, Curfman was motivated to start a Scouting unit in which he and all other members with special needs could participate fully.

The result was Crew 1777, chartered to the Pipe Creek “Brick” United Methodist Church in New Windsor, Md. (See sidebar)

Staff volunteers (from left) Barb Peters, Megan Roland, Emilie Durham, and Caitlin Moore help Advisor Stewart Lentz and Venturer Donald Chepko enjoy a gentle trip around the riding area.

All Venturers in Crew 1777 have learning disabilities or are physically or mentally challenged. Every member is older than 21. This is possible because BSA regulations allow men and women with mental retardation or severe physical or emotional disabilities to continue Venturing membership beyond the usual 14-to-21 age range.

Two Advisors and three committee members encourage the Crew 1777 Venturers to plan their own activities. In fact, “the calendar of events is set by the Venturers,” observed Advisor Stewart Lentz, who is also a unit commissioner in the Baltimore Area Council‘s Carroll District. “We’re here mainly to guide them.”

In choosing events, the Venturers avoid activities in which all members might not be able to take part. The Advisors make sure the activities are safe, within Scouting guidelines, and suitable for the ages and interests of the group.


A special riding facility like The Retreat was a good choice, and during the one-day visit the Venturers learned a lot from the farm’s director, veteran equestrian trainer Mary Shunk, and numerous volunteer helpers.

Horseback riding for persons with disabilities, known as “therapeutic riding,” has benefited individuals of all ages and with many kinds of disabilities.

Brian Buckmaster discovers that a horse doesn’t mind being groomed with a brush.

Riding a horse works the rider’s muscle tone, balance, stamina, sequencing skills, eye-hand coordination, and communication skills, and builds self-confidence.

Mary Shunk, who is a certified advanced instructor for the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association, describes the healing effects of therapeutic riding. She notes how some individuals have started their series of riding sessions in a hunched-over position (caused by illness, lack of strength, or a sense of caution or hesitation) and finished being able to sit up, straight and proud.

In just one get-acquainted session at Mary Shunk’s farm, the members of Crew 1777 wouldn’t experience such dramatic changes—but it was obvious that even the initial visit was having a major impact on most of them.

The day began with the volunteer staff reviewing the rules for safety around horses, followed by a lesson in grooming (brushing) the animals.

Volunteers then proceeded to tack the three horses—grooming and putting on a saddle and bridle—and invited the crew members to join in getting the animals ready to ride.

After a riding demonstration in the ring, it was time for those Venturers who could to mount up for their own horseback experience. (Some Crew 1777 members couldn’t ride, due to physical conditions, but were able to lead a horse in the arena with a lead shank.)

Crew vice president Donald Chepko is 54 and last rode a horse more than 40 years ago. “I’ve always dreamed of being on a horse again but never thought it would happen,” he said after his ride. “It was wonderful! I loved the feeling of being able to move without walking.”

Webelos Scout Charles Haas, who has autism, is still too young to be a member of Crew 1777. But he looks forward to joining one day. He had accompanied the group on its visit. With his horse led by 13-year-old volunteer Caroline Wensel, he was able to trot the animal across the arena.


The day couldn’t happen without individuals like Caroline who help at The Retreat. Thanks to volunteers, special-needs riders have been able to log 1.5 million hours on horses in the 20-some years Mary Shunk and her many helpers have been working with them.

After riding, the crew enjoyed a cookout and a water-balloon toss to cool off after a hot summer afternoon.

Because of the effect the day’s events had on crew members, their families, friends, and volunteers alike, it was difficult to tell who was giving help and who was receiving pleasure. The Venturers’ simple, unassuming joy was contagious.

Cindy Ross is a frequent contributor to Scouting magazine. Her most recent article was “Saving Loggerhead Sea Turtles” in the March-April 2006 issue.

[Editor’s note: Associate Advisor Fred Vigeveno of Venturing Crew 1777 is willing to assist others looking for help in starting or running a special-needs crew. Contact him via e-mail atScouter@qis.net or write him in care of the crew at Venturing Crew 1777, P.O. Box 185, New Windsor, MD 21776.]

‘Can-Do’ Crew

Volunteers like Crew 1777‘s associate Advisor Fred Vigeveno do not consider giving time to work with persons with disabilities a sacrifice. (In fact, Vigeveno says he spent many days as a youth volunteering at a facility for persons with severe disabilities—because he enjoyed their company.)

After his children had left Scouting, Vigeveno says he missed being involved as a parent. When he learned about Eagle Scout Paul Curfman’s idea for a special-needs Venturing crew, Vigeveno joined with another Scouting volunteer, Stewart Lentz, to help provide the crew’s adult leadership.

The organizers recruited potential new members at a local chapter of The Arc, a national organization dedicated to promoting and improving support and services for people with mental retardation and their families.

“I had heard of Boy Scouts before, but never anything about the Venturing program,” said crew president Kelly Chepko, 45, who has been married to crew vice president Donald Chepko, 53, for 10 years. “Now I feel like this is my second home.”

Venturer Brian Buckmaster, 22, agreed. “I’ve never been in a group like this; it feels good.”

For the Venturers and their leaders, therapeutic horseback riding was another rewarding experience to add to an ever-growing list. To date, the crew has held monthly activities that include pizza parties, camping trips, and participation in a Scouting for Food drive.

However, the crew’s specialty is staging puppet shows, which it has done at hospitals, nursing homes, schools, and civic organizations.

“It’s an opportunity to show the community that instead of only needing assistance [because of their disabilities], they can also be of service,” said Wayne Curfman, committee chairman and the father of crew founder and member Paul Curfman, 21. “Plus, the folks love the puppet shows.”

Both Kelly and Donald Chepko also serve special-needs Venturing Crew 1778, launched in the Baltimore Area Council’s Carroll District in March of this year. Kelly is Advisor, and Don is associate Advisor to the Sykesville, Md., unit, which is chartered to the town’s fire department. Like Crew 1777, the new crew accommodates membership beyond the usual age limit, and it welcomes participation by those who have emotional, learning, or physical disabilities, or mental retardation.

“I’m doing things I never thought I’d do,” Donald Chepko observed. “We’re not just talking about things, we’re actually doing them.”


The Horse That Jack Built

Five years ago, when Jack Bryan was a Scout in Troop 381 in Westminster, Md., his Eagle Scout project was not creating a hiking trail or cleaning up a riverbank—he built a horse.

large wooden horse, actually, for riders with special needs.

Jack and his family had served as volunteer helpers at Mary Shunk’s therapeutic riding facility. The veteran equestrian coach told Jack that her riding program needed some kind of gentle mechanical horse, because younger riders were sometimes too afraid to climb onto a live animal. A wooden training version would enable them to ease into therapeutic horseback riding, helping them eventually gain all the program’s benefits.

The horse that Jack designed and built, with help from members of his troop, sits four feet off the ground, attached to a platform with two truck springs underneath to make it jump and dance and come alive.

Its body can take a saddle, and a bridle fits on its head, which can turn from side to side so the rider can simulate actual steering.

Jack is now an assistant Scoutmaster for Troop 381, and his horse has been in use for five years in the therapeutic riding program. Thanks to it, a dozen children have been able to move onto the real thing.


On the Web

A BSA fast sheet, “Scouts with Disabilities and Special Needs,” is available athttp://www.scouting.org/factsheets/02-508.html. To see past Scouting magazine articles, go to oursearch page and click “Disabilities/Special needs.”

1 Comment

  1. I helped build this special needs Venture Crew. I hope there new crew members with special needs or an entire new special needs Venture crew

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