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Strong bonds develop between students and their steeds

By Kathy Antoniotti
Beacon Journal staff writer

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Daniel Smith, 12, picks up flags and then rides to a bucket to deposit them in a bucket at another station, during a medical therapy class at Pegasus Farm. (Paul Tople/Akron Beacon Journal)

Kristin Martin and Flash have an exclusive relationship. The affection between the two is undeniable to anyone who catches her quietly raining butterfly kisses along the length of Flash’s impressive jaw line.

Martin, 19, of Barberton, and Flash, an American paint horse, have been partners for several years in her journey to live life to the fullest despite being born with developmental disabilities. Today, Martin is considered a capable, independent rider, responsible for Flash’s tack and grooming during therapeutic equine classes that began 15 years ago at Pegasus Farm. She tentatively explains the connection she has with her favorite horse.

“I call him a stinker [because] he sneezes on me,” Martin said with a chuckle.

Pegasus Farm is one of only a handful of riding centers in Ohio certified as a premier therapeutic riding center for people with disabilities. The facility, located about three miles east of Hartville, was established in 1985 by three Canton City Schools teachers who were looking for a way to offer children with disabilities the opportunity for physical activity, recreation and socializing.

Research shows that horseback riding has exceptional physical and psychological benefits for riders with disabilities. While on horseback, students with little mobility or motor control get to experience the freedom of movement that most others take for granted, said Pegasus Farm Executive Director Carol Lichtenwalter of Atwood Lake. Lichtenwalter, who took over as executive director last year, said horses and humans share a special bond.

“Horses have a brain that connects very well with human emotions. They mirror our feelings,” which makes them so compatible with people who may not be able to communicate well verbally.

Equestrian director Tammi Gainer of Marlboro Township, who has worked at the center for 18 years, said horses are especially useful in helping students build core strength and improve motor skills and balance.

“The physical aspects of a horse imitates walking and stimulates muscles,” Gainer said. “Riding builds muscle tone and strengthens muscles and endurance.”

Farm expands over years

The farm that opened in 1986 with “five riders, two horses and one backyard,” said Lichtenwalter, has expanded to 120 acres of land, 35 horses and 175 volunteers who typically help more than 200 riders each week. With a $570,000 annual budget, the nonprofit facility operates through donations, grants and the largesse of others.

Students pay $27.50 per class, but a liberal scholarship program assures a student won’t be turned away due to lack of finances, Lichtenwalter said.

Like many of the employees and volunteers at the center, Lichtenwalter learned of the facility firsthand when she enrolled her daughter, Amy, who was born with Down syndrome.

“I saw an organization that fully embraced people with special needs,” she said.

The center offers families a social connection that they may not experience anywhere else, Lichtenwalter said: “You meet so many families along the way. This is one that allows families to come together to support each other.”

During each class, riders spend about 15 minutes grooming their horses and getting them ready to enter the Firestone Arena, refurbished in 2010 with a grant from the Timken Foundation, and 40 minutes riding. Lesson plans for each class are geared to “pushing a student toward independence,” Gainer said.

Classes are available for people with developmental disabilities from age 3 to adult. Besides riding and carriage driving lessons, students may take vaulting lessons, a combination of dance and gymnastics on a moving horse. An open 4-H club, which accepts all members whether they have special needs or not, holds its monthly meetings there. Each Wednesday, the center offers riding and carriage driving lessons to disabled veterans taught by other veterans. Adults may enroll in the Wings program held three days a week, to experience a variety of activities.

Tamara Weber of Canton, who retired from Plain Local Schools after 37 years of teaching, said she has no preference when it comes to instructing youngsters or adults, even though teaching little ones, known affectionately by instructors as “weebies,” sometimes seems like “herding kittens.”

“We treat them as typical children. We don’t coddle them,” she said.

Weber became involved with the agency in 1991 while looking into a program for her daughter, Allison, who was born with a health condition that put her at risk for developmental delay. Allison, 25, who today is a staff member, tried to be diplomatic while saying she prefers working with older students.

“They are a little more focused,” she explained.

Promoting independence

While classes are in session, parents gather over a pot of coffee sharing weekly news with others who face similar issues and concerns. Classes help improve their children’s verbal skills and teach them to relate to others, they say.

Linda Steinhebel of North Canton said her daughter, Amy, 18, who used a walker until she was 10, has made great strides since her first days at the center as a 4-year-old.

“My feeling is we want her to be as independent as possible. The biggest benefit is the social aspect, especially since she’s older now,” said Steinhebel of her daughter, a student at Hoover High School.

Gainer remembers taking the little girl off her horse and gathering her in her arms to carry her back to the arena.

“Every time we went outside, she’d fall asleep on her horse,” Gainer recounted.

The center partners with several Stark County agencies to provide services to people referred by Child and Adolescent Service Center Inc., Quest Recovery and Prevention Services and Stark County Family Court. The programs involve a formal relationship between the center and its partners to provide a specific aspect of equine-assisted therapy to participants. Although the programs involving horse-related activities are conducted by Pegasus staff, partner organizations provide separate activities in unison with the center’s curriculum.

Pegasus Pantry, open Tuesday through Saturday on the grounds of the facility, opened earlier this year. The store, staffed by day-care participants, carries all-natural, organic and gluten-free health food items. The store’s inventory is designed to accommodate the dietary needs of program participants and the community.

Staff members and volunteers are currently preparing for the center’s largest annual fundraiser to be held at Congress Lake County Club, 1 East Drive in Hartville, on Nov. 3. Tickets to the black-tie optional gala are $75. Tables for eight and 10 are available. A portion of the amount of the ticket is tax deductible. Visit www.pegasusfarm.org/Gala2012.html for more information.

To become a participant at Pegasus Farm, call 330-935-2300, ext. 16, to request an application packet.

Kathy Antoniotti can be reached at 330-996-3565 or kantoniotti@thebeaconjournal.com.


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