Saddling Up to Make Progress in Their Disabilities

Not by any stretch of the imagination is Joyce Davison a horse person. “I’m honestly afraid of them; one ran away with me when I was in college,” she said.
And yet, since 1981 the La Cañada Flintridge resident has dedicated herself to a local riding club.
Davison is the board president of Ahead with Horses, a nonprofit that helps disabled children learn and lead more independent and productive lives through equine therapy. (“Ahead” stands for accelerated habilitation education and development.)
Introduced to the program when she was the benefit chair for the Flintridge Women’s Club, Davison said, “When I saw what the kids were able to do on horseback, I couldn’t leave.”
“We specialize in working with children with all types of disabilities,” said Executive Director Michelle Newman. “From multiple sclerosis, as well as autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, Crohn’s disease, other developmental delays — a wide range.”
“We see miracles every day,” Davison said. “Little, tiny ones, but they grow and they grow. I’ve seen kids who are walking who are not supposed to be walking; I’ve heard kids say words — and it might be ‘whoa’ or ‘walk,’ but it’s a word that hasn’t been spoken before. And the behavior problems have not disappeared completely, but they have been under control because kids have to listen to their instructor.”
On a glorious Saturday morning last week on the tidy ranch in Shadow Hills, Davison’s decision to stick around was easy to understand. A stripe of clouds hovered high above smiling children, none of whom seemed aware that they were engaged in therapy and not just their favorite pastime.
The riders — between 3 and 20 years old that morning — smiled continuously, contagiously during their half-hour sessions. In each case, an instructor and a pair of spotters accompanied students circling the pen on good-natured steeds named Cash and Cassini, Moira and Taz.
Some of the riders engaged in vaulting — the program’s term for gymnastics on the horse, which amounts to shifting positions as a way to strengthen core muscles. Others stood and worked on other muscles, and balance, by reaching for shapes nearby. Some stopped only so they could command the horse to “walk” again.
Moms and dads stood just outside the fence, waving and encouraging, watching for those little miracles.
Erika Veloz, 15, has been coming since she was 4. She is autistic.
“We started coming in because her body was very rigid,” dad Erik Veloz said. “Whenever she would reach for a water faucet, she would reach only with her right hand. But after a few months, she started reaching with her left hand, and eventually, she became left-handed. I hadn’t seen her doing that before.
“And she was always falling,” he said. “Every time she tried running, she would trip over herself. This has helped her a lot. Now you see her take off and you can barely catch up to her.”
Averie Wolkensdorfer, a 3-year-old with Prader-Willi syndrome, also has shown unmistakable improvement.
“It helps with her balance, coordination. It’s strengthening, and it’s also good for her sensory system,” said mom Jennifer Wolkensdorfer, who drives over twice a week from Tujunga to watch a horse’s natural gait help her daughter improve hers. “She walked pretty shortly after she started riding, and for her to walk at 18 months, that’s pretty good.”
In the 48 years of the program, hundreds of children have been served, Davison said. But because it is considered recreational therapy and therefore is not typically covered by insurance, the cost of participating can exclude some families.
That’s what kept Frank Boxt, 20, away for many years. But he’s been back for six months now, making the 45-minute drive from his Los Angeles home with his dad, Matthew. An animal lover, Frank loves the riding, Matthew Boxt said.
Currently, there are 60 participants in the program, which has room to grow. At its height, Ahead with Horses served more than 200 children. The Veloz family was on a waiting list for a year before Erika was able to enroll. Some of them, like Averie, show up twice a week. Others come once a week or once a month.
The staff includes two full-timers, five part-timers and a collection of volunteers, many of whom are high school-aged and looking to complete community-service hours in a meaningful way. (Gold Award and Eagle Scout projects are prevalent on-site — a joyfully painted shed, a directional post and an enclosed bulletin board among them.)
The cost of lessons, as well as grants and donations, help pay for the program, which also benefits from fundraising efforts by the Foothill Auxiliary, whose members includes several LCF residents, Davison said.
The biggest fundraiser of the year happens on-site this Saturday, June 11. The 35th annual Fun Day will feature games and barbecue, music and massage, crafts and face painting, a silent auction and, most importantly, a demonstration by the children.
“When I was a kid, I played the piano and we had a recital every year,” Davison said. “And that’s what I look at this as. This is the kids’ chance to show off how they’ve improved over the years. And they’ll have the biggest smiles on their faces!”
Because as much as the program assists with balance and strength, with fine motor skills and socialization, the most valuable thing might be that “they get fun,” board member Arlene Latino said.
That’s why Pasadena’s June Neuroth, a 5-year-old with partial chromosome abnormality, fights having to go to traditional therapy but cheers getting to come to Ahead With Horses, where every week she rides and feeds the horses carrots, said her mom, Heidi Neuroth.
“If your brain is being stimulated while learning, you’re more likely to retain it,” Newman said. “And most of our clients love coming. They don’t think of it as therapy, they just love being with the animals.”

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