Where Riding Works Wonders

By Cindy Ross
Photographs by Steve Wewerka

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.

A special crew

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.

Riding's healing effects

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.

Giving and receiving

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 at Scouter@qis.net or write him in care of the crew at Venturing Crew 1777, P.O. Box 185, New Windsor, MD 21776.]

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