For anyone who must use a wheelchair or has limited physical mobility, the feeling of riding a horse might be akin to the experience of flying: Breathtaking, really, is how it’s described, those powerful strides suddenly moving your body by means of a warm and supple force that almost feels your own.
Joy Rittenhouse knew that the moment she felt it, some 40 years ago, she would never let it go. So Rittenhouse, who overcame polio, has dedicated her life’s work ever since to ensuring other children and adults with physical disabilities can catch a bit of that euphoria, too. And the adrenaline rush of riding a steed is just the icing: More and more research shows that horse riding — or equine therapy — is an effective form of physical strengthening of core muscles and balance.
For 24 years, Rittenhouse has provided that opportunity locally through the nonprofit organization she founded, Move A Child Higher, or MACH 1, so that anyone with disabilities can experience the joy of therapeutic horsemanship and a horseback riding program that offers equine-assisted activities.
“As a child I was always interested in horses, I was always a horse lover, but I never thought I would be able to ride because of my leg,” said Rittenhouse, who, after suffering from polio at age 8, spent a year in the hospital and emerged wearing a leg brace. She had been resigned to having an atrophied right leg even after years of physical therapy, but many years later was encouraged to ride a horse while on vacation. She surprised herself by her ability to move with the horse, despite her physical limitations.
“The movement is much like ours, it’s up and down, side to side and back and forth … so using the horse made sense because using its movement develops incredible core strength and pelvic rotation, sitting up tall, creating balance — it combines all of these elements that I’d already had somewhat ingrained after doing years of physical therapy,” Rittenhouse recalled. “And now, we get to see these children make incredible changes over time from riding compared to when they start.”
And what child isn’t fascinated with horses, with their sweet smell of hay, their warm, fuzzy muzzles, and personalities as distinct as the humans they carry? Apart from all that, a client can experience 2,500 steps of movement in just one 30-minute equine therapy session.
“The horses really give the children a special courage and motivation,” Rittenhouse said.
Nestled in the shady urban forest of Hahamongna Watershed Park at the Pasadena Equestrian Center, located in the Arroyo Seco, MACH 1 built its own 1-acre paradise (land provided by the city) after years of operating at the Flintridge Riding Club. The nonprofit worked tirelessly to raise $300,000, along with several large grants and donations, to build a fully equipped, handicapped accessible ranch, complete with barn, paddocks and riding ring.
And the MACH 1 horses — six well-trained, top-of-the-line mounts that often have been retired from public service — are incredibly calm and patient, warranting a good deal of love from their riders, Rittenhouse noted.
Luke Perez, 17, has been riding at MACH 1 since he was 13 and loved the horses so much he continued to take part in the “Barn Buddies” program, which gives children with Down syndrome or other developmental disabilities the opportunity to learn about how to take care of the barn and the animals.
Today, Luke is an important fixture at the stables, coming weekly to help groom and feed the horses, clean up their stalls and bridle and exercise his favorite horse, Shadow.
“Shadow is a police horse — he’s retired now, but he still acts like a big buff horse,” said Perez, showing off his companion, who leaned over to nudge the teenager’s back, searching for a treat. “He’s my favorite horse … he trusts me now. This place is precious to me, it’s wonderful.”
Perez also pointed out how much he loves Mercy Lavender, an incorrigible donkey who has become known as the leader of the pack. Her stubborn hee-hawing can be heard echoing on the other side of the arroyo, alerting the rest of the herd (and the neighbors) when it’s meal time.
“Of course, there’s Mercy Lavender, that old donkey,” Perez laughed.
Although MACH 1 may have been founded to provide children’s therapy, adults can also use its services. One such client, Laura Lovelace, found the nonprofit to be a lifesaver.
Lovelace had been an experienced rider for many years, even learning to ride on ex-racehorse thoroughbreds, an exceptionally high-spirited (and temperamental, some might say) breed. But the public school teacher was involved in a horrific automobile accident that nearly took her life in 2007. She was in a coma for six weeks, broke most of her bones, suffered a severe traumatic brain injury and had a tracheotomy. The doctors never expected her to walk or talk again.
After what seemed to be ages of working on her recovery, one of her therapists drove her to visit MACH 1.
“When I saw what they did, I knew YES I was interested, but I knew that I would not be able to stay on a horse,” Lovelace said.
But MACH 1 provides assisted riding, with experienced walkers on each side of the horse helping to support the rider, while a trained instructor leads the horse.
The improvement Lovelace experienced was mind-boggling, she recounted. When she began, Lovelace needed a walker to walk and still had trouble breathing just from the effort of sitting up. Today, she rides on her own, drives on her own and has become a MACH 1 instructor trained in the accredited Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International, or PATH. She also just became a member of MACH 1’s board of directors.
“I’ve been an instructor here now for about two years; I find it to be an amazing experience, having a unique perspective of having experienced how hard it can be to balance after not using trunk control after months using a wheelchair. … I had spent much time in physical therapy, and doing it outside with birds and butterflies flying about is so much more uplifting than being in a dark gym,” Lovelace said. “I wanted to share the joy and possibilities. It brings me great happiness to be a part in sharing that.”
Like Rittenhouse, Lovelace undertook the grueling process of becoming a PATH instructor, something that, combined with her public school teaching background, has convinced her that more publicity and research should be shared about equine therapy.
“In becoming an instructor I looked at all the scientific studies that show horse riding and the relationship with a horse — even grooming and being around them — is so good for humans, physically and mentally,” she said. “My hope is that we can get the word out on how effective equine-assisted activities can be. Science is starting to have data to back up anecdotal evidence.”
Rittenhouse also hopes to expand the MACH 1 program to include early intervention therapy for children younger than 4, but that would require further accreditation and licensed therapists on site — an incredibly costly addition.
Funding for further educational programs at the nonprofit has become a recent issue, even though Rittenhouse has worked hard to keep costs at bay. As director, she manages all the programming and the horse farm, with the help of her right-hand woman, director of operations Cric Dupuis.
Dupuis, of Switzerland, is a former barn manager for the Swiss Olympic jumping team and had taken a break from that time-intensive career, taking English classes near Pasadena, when she met Rittenhouse at the Flintridge Riding Club. The rest is history.
“I just fell in love with MACH 1. And they seemed like they could use the help. … She’s the brains and I’m the [brawn],” Dupuis joked, nodding toward Rittenhouse, who said MACH 1 couldn’t believe its good fortune when Dupuis came on board.
“She runs this place like a Swiss machine,” Rittenhouse said. “Cric is much too overqualified for us!”
Indeed, the recent spell of torrential rains flooded out the arena, and Dupuis and Rittenhouse are known for bailing by hand, with buckets, a tractor — whatever they can use to deal with the elements typical of life on a farm. Both often experience fretful times when high winds and thunderstorms occur overnight, never sure what they might find in the morning.
They also rely on their “free” handyman, who can fix just about anything electrical or plumbing-related, and just so happens to be a fellow board member, Don Fedde. The second-generation owner of Fedde Furniture — which is now run by his son, Mark — became involved in MACH 1 after his grandson Taylor, who has severe cerebral palsy, became a client.
“For someone who can’t walk, riding a horse is a pretty special feeling,” said Fedde, laughing modestly at his hidden handyman skills and noting, “I’ve been repairing a 100-year-old furniture store building all of my life.”
Apart from keeping the lights on at MACH 1, he’s also determined to help the nonprofit secure its future.
“There’s a lot of need out there, and it’s just plain fun for these kids,” he added. “It’s something you can’t just walk away from or ignore once you see it in action, see what they can do. It’s such a good cause.”
To learn more about MACH 1, volunteer opportunities there, board member openings or how to donate or to further help its programs, visit moveachildhigher.org.