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Published: Thursday, 5/25/2006

Riding program returns to the range

BY ERIKA RAY
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Mitch Sworden, 5, beams as his horse trots along at Vail Meadows Equestrian Center in Oregon. Helping him are Joseph Martinez, 17, from left, Katie Feher, 18, Casey Bursztynski, 13, and therapeutic-riding instructor Peggy Fritz. Mitch Sworden, 5, beams as his horse trots along at Vail Meadows Equestrian Center in Oregon. Helping him are Joseph Martinez, 17, from left, Katie Feher, 18, Casey Bursztynski, 13, and therapeutic-riding instructor Peggy Fritz.
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After she scratches the horse's withers in appreciation at Vail Meadows in Oregon, Casey Anstead carefully dismounts and slowly starts to walk back toward the wheelchair she uses because she has cerebral palsy.

As Peggy Fritz helps the 10-year-old balance while she carefully places one foot in front of the other, the therapeutic riding instructor remarks at how much Casey's walking has improved.

Since she's been participating in therapeutic riding at the Vail Meadows Equestrian Center for the last six years, her father, Kevin, said her speech has improved too, but he can't explain why. "That's the magic," Mr. Anstead said.

The therapeutic riding program is back at Vail Meadows after it had been canceled for several months because of a lack of funding, said Walter Bell, the center's executive director.

With hundreds of volunteers and 12 horses, the program at Vail Meadows is by far the area's largest therapeutic riding center. And because of the demand for the program, which costs just under $300,000 a year to run, the Vail family knew they had to find a way to bring it back to serve the about 75 handicapped adults and children who used its services.

Some researchers believe the horse's bodily warmth and movement, which they say mimics the movements of a walking person, relaxes and stimulates tight or otherwise unused muscles.

"So many people were upset because it was a therapy they depended on," said Joy Vail, an owner for Vail Meadows Properties. "It was heart-wrenching, but they were so grateful that it was coming back."

To help defray costs, officials revamped some programs, added others, started boarding horses, changed their not-for-profit status to "for-profit," and found out-of-town sponsors for three therapy horses to help bring that program back.

The newest program is one where the riding center has teamed up with a Williston care facility to provide a holistic approach to daily activities for adults living with mental retardation or developmental disabilities.

The program, called the Luther Home of Mercy Day Program at Vail Meadows, is designed to be a learning experience in an equine and agricultural setting for adults in Lucas, Wood, and Ottawa counties.

Other newer events include speed shows complete with barrel racing, field trips, and opportunities for people to ride the horses for fun.

To ensure they were moving forward amid all the changes Mr. Bell said he often pointed to the quote he has hanging in his office that states, "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them."

"We're doing everything possible to make these programs work," Mr. Bell said.



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