Heads Up! : Horseback Therapy Program Inspires, Motivates, Stretches Muscles, Builds Confidence

Larson is a Newhall free-lance writer.

Anne Marie Bonnefil strode up to a 17-hands high chestnut thoroughbred called Nasa.

"You must be the Wilt Chamberlain of horses," she said to Nasa, an ex-show hunter and jumper. Then Bonnefil, 23, donned a helmet, mounted the horse and prepared to ride, English style.

The scene looked typical of any stable, except that Anne Marie is autistic and is part of a therapeutic riding program called Heads Up.

Headquartered in Saugus, the program is the first of its kind in the Santa Clarita Valley. It was started informally in June of last year and incorporated seven months later by Nancy Pitchford, 43.

Heads Up offers physical and emotional stimulation in the non-clinical setting of the 7 1/2-acre Amber Rose Ranch. The program's 15 youth and adult riders have disabilities such as scoliosis (curvature of the spine), cerebral palsy (damage to the brain's motor area) and paraplegia.

Once a week, in the early evening or on weekends, the riders come to this hillside setting and, for nearly an hour, are unencumbered by wheelchairs or a sense of disability.

"Riding a horse takes every muscle that you own," said Pitchford, who has ridden for 36 years. "You have to learn to use every muscle independently and it takes a great deal of coordination.

"You try to stretch them, you try to stretch their physical capabilities. We develop games to inspire, to motivate."

Although Heads Up is an autonomous group, it is affiliated with the National Foundation of Happy Horsemanship for the Handicapped. Pitchford was certified as a therapeutic riding instructor at the foundation's Pennsylvania headquarters. The therapy program was begun in England in 1964, according to Pitchford.

A cool breeze blew on a recent clear Wednesday evening as tiny 5-year-old Bryon (Bucky) Helfrich of Arleta, who has cerebral palsy, was helped onto a horse. He is able to ride lying on his stomach or sitting, if aided by a rider behind him.

"It helps massage his internal organs," his father, Rob, said, as he watched Bucky circle the arena. "And it gets him relaxed enough so he can sit up. Sitting up helps with his coordination. The movement of the horse exercises his joints.

"When we first started coming, he was pretty stiff. One time, after riding, we put him on his tummy and he scooted for the first time. Since then, he's had surgery on both hips. Now, all I have to do is tell him we're going to ride and he starts laughing and smiling. Nothing pleases him more than riding that horse."

Pitchford does not hold a professional degree in a medical or therapeutic field, but to run the program relies on the administrative and interpersonal skills acquired during 14 years as a personnel trainer at Lockheed Corp.

The first riders Pitchford worked with were a deaf boy and a girl with cerebral palsy. She invested $2,000 and sought volunteers to work with other children. There are now 19 volunteers, yet Pitchford still devotes about 30 hours a week to caring for the horses, writing newsletters, lecturing and soliciting donations. She also is assistant manager of training at Valley Federal Savings & Loan Assn.

Heads Up volunteers Joan Marth, Jeannine Browning, Lisa Irvan and Sue DeJaegher feed, clean, train and groom the horses and maintain the corrals.

"It has become our avocation," said Irvan, a Sherman Oaks travel agent.

Others, like 34-year-old Colleen Zimmerle of Valencia and her daughter, Shannon, 13, go to the ranch each night to groom or ride the docile horses.

"This is the highlight of our day," Zimmerle said as she cleaned near the corrals. "There's a great camaraderie among the volunteers."

In Heads Up, riders primarily learn to ride English, although often starting on their backs or stomachs to stimulate weak muscles or aid circulation to paralyzed areas. Young riders often are assigned at-home exercises to improve riding techniques. Riders are asked to contribute $12.50 for an hour session.

Many younger riders are referred through a local clinic and residential home that no longer can motivate them to exercise, she said. The Jay Nolan Center for Autism in Saugus and the state-run California Children Services in Canyon Country have referred children to the program.

Evaluated Twice a Year

Pitchford evaluates each rider twice a year, assessing goals, setting new goals and spotlighting accomplishments. Reports are sent to the riders' therapists and counselors.

Anne Marie Bonnefil, for example, can perform all riding tasks, but lacks concentration and coordination skills. The volunteer staff keeps her focused on carrying out riding commands from Pitchford, who stands centered in the 75-by-125-foot arena and speaks through a bullhorn.

Anne Marie is among five of six residents at Placerita House (a home operated for autistic adults by the Nolan center) enrolled in weekly riding lessons, according to Lori Shepard, residential program manager.

"All of them who go really enjoy it," Shepard said. "They request to go. For a lot of them, it's the first experience they've ever had that close to an animal."

5 Clients Enrolled

Occupational therapist Fleur Freudenstein, supervisor of the North Los Angeles County therapy unit of California Children Services, said five of her clients, 7 to 16 years old, are enrolled in Heads Up.

"The horseback-riding program provides a medium for them to improve their self-esteem and self-confidence by them being able to form a relationship with a living animal," she said. "And I think that, when children are limited in their physical movement and have very little control over their environment, when they're put on a horse and they can learn to guide the horse and control the horse, this is a terrific boost to them. And the horse responds to them."

A doctor's referral is necessary to join Heads Up, to avoid the possibility of aggravating a physical disability.

"A child with cerebral palsy has very tight adductors," Freudenstein said, "and, if we put him on a horse, they could increase. So, we have to think: 'Would this be good for this child...?' "

Multiple Benefits

Horseback riding can even benefit wheelchair-bound individuals. Moving with the gait of the horse stimulates and tones muscles, improves circulation and aids balance, coordination and posture.

Gains that are harder to gauge involve improved self-esteem, a sense of mastery over a task and simply the feeling of freedom from dependence on a wheelchair. Even those who can't vocalize can exhibit personality development and fewer inhibitions, Pitchford said.

Richard Houghton, 14, of Saugus has cerebral palsy. A wheelchair-bound student at Placerita Canyon Junior High School, he must be washed, fed, transported and exercised.

Although he must be physically supported while riding horseback, the activity still requires him to perform tasks independently, and that, say his parents, Bob and Jean, has opened a new vista to him.

'Uplifting Experience'

"Mentally, it's been such an uplifting experience for him," Bob said. "It's opened up a whole new alley where there was nothing before."

Scott Seamands, 7, of Valencia, who has scoliosis and ataxia, a mild form of cerebral palsy, always rides English on the pony, Rusty.

"Keep your chin up," Pitchford called to him. "Look ahead. Stick out your tush. OK, how about a little posting? Count one, two, three, to the rhythm of your horse."

As Scott did another exercise, Pitchford pointed out how it forced him to bend at the hip, while keeping his eyes focused ahead. "We call it 'riding the two-point,' " she said. "It's actually an exercise for able-bodied people and it makes you use every muscle you own. Your legs get stretched, your arms are in motion.

'Was Scared to Death'

"When he started coming, Scott was scared to death of the big horses. A horse was just an inanimate object. Now, Rusty has become his friend. When he gets out here, he runs to him. His self-confidence has risen sharply. He's now willing to try new things, to practice running and do things he never would before."

Pitchford hopes to hire one or two staff members, invite medical personnel to visit the ranch and conduct a workshop for those unfamiliar with horseback therapy.

Heads Up has room for five new riders, but needs more volunteers to service them as classes move to Saturday mornings, Sunday afternoons and one evening weekly.

"We're like a family," Pitchford said. "All of our people are out there because they really care, and it has enabled us to squeak through some tough times."

The program's name, Heads Up, has a double meaning, she pointed out.

"It's something you yell in the arena when you're riding or jumping, like you yell 'fore!' on a golf course," she said.

"But Heads Up also indicates pride, looking ahead, concentrating on your ability rather than your disability."

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