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Handicapped Sit Tall in Saddle Competing in Special Olympics

Paula S. Voorhees is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

Ever since he saw a video about a show horse named Danny two years ago, Chris Crowthers has dreamed of competing in one of the equestrian events at the Olympics.

The 23-year-old developmentally disabled man taped horse shows on ESPN and watched them over and over. He checked out every book on horses from the library near his Stanton home and, although he can only read and comprehend at fourthgrade level, often the pictures were enough to keep his dream alive.

“For Halloween, he had to have an English riding habit as his costume,” says Cheryl Lynn Crowthers, Chris’ mother. “He must’ve gotten his interest in English riding from his English ancestry, which traces back to Lord Nelson.”

Thanks to the American Riding Club for the Handicapped, called ARCH, Chris’ dream came true: He and 36 other mentally and physically disabled athletes--ranging in age from 3 to 50--competed in the 1990 Orange County Special Olympics at Rancho del Rio Stables in Anaheim last Saturday. Sponsored by ARCH, the competition was open to any handicapped or disabled group. It was a qualifying meet for the state finals, to be held in Riverside at Rancheros Arena May 19 to 20.

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“It’s the first time the Special Olympics State Finals has been held relatively close to Orange County, and I wanted as many athletes to be able to qualify as possible,” said Lorraine (Frosty) Kaiser, special education teacher and founder of ARCH. “To qualify to compete at State, the athletes had to compete in at least one county meet.”

ARCH was founded in 1976 and is a nonprofit organization whose purpose is to promote the therapeutic and recreational aspects of horseback riding to the handicapped in Orange County.

“We serve the developmentally delayed and physically handicapped--multiple sclerosis, hemiplegia, blindness, neurological disorder, hearing impairment, mental retardation and autism,” says Julie Nerney, a volunteer whose 25-year-old daughter, Rebecca, has participated in the program for 10 years.

“Mental and physical disabilities seem to equal out when riding, and the athletes are very compatible. It’s sort of a United Nations of disabilities,” she said.

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Cheryl Lynn Crowthers was thrilled when she heard about the program and signed Chris up. Since November, 1989, the 6-foot 2-inch man has been riding weekly, achieving an advanced level of proficiency for the disabled.

At his level in the Special Olympics, Chris was required to walk and reverse a horse named Snookers and guide it around various obstacles. Although Chris and Snookers landed in second place in their first meet, Chris was nervous.

“But I have to hide it because Snookers will feel it and (it will) make him nervous,” he said.

Snookers, a chestnut of indeterminate age, looked as if nothing short of a bomb detonating beneath him could shake his nerves. He’s typical of ARCH’s 17 horses, picked for their tractability and good nature. Many are retired show horses well accustomed to crowds.

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It seems hard to imagine that wheelchair-bound athletes could ride, much less compete, in equestrian events, says Steve Stewart, a Long Beach merchant banker whose 6-year-old son, Sean, and 4-year-old daughter, Tara, competed in Saturday’s Olympics, “but riding is one of the few sports the disabled can compete in. Volunteers help the disabled riders mount and maintain balance.”

Stewart says riding helps Sean--who suffers from cerebral palsy--strengthen his back and trunk muscles, keep his legs apart, practice balance and learn muscle control. “Riding also acts as a natural massage and induces relaxation of tightly contracted and spastic muscles,” he said. “Besides all that, they just have such a darn good time, and it’s something both children can do together.”

Tara, who is not disabled, takes lessons alongside her brother.

Like any true athlete, Sean was not satisfied to receive only three ribbons in his division of the Special Olympics. But he’s not giving up. “I want to go in (the arena) again. I like horses very much.”

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The classes were arranged so that there were no more than four students, and each contestant received an award.

Before an event, one athlete worried about her ability to win a ribbon.

“I just don’t think I can. I just don’t think I can,” muttered the curly-haired, 20-year-old brunette.

A fellow competitor slowly put her arm about the woman’s shoulders. “Remember,” she stuttered, “if just one of us wins a ribbon, we all win.”

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