Three years ago, Eric Johnson couldn't step over things without falling.
But since the 9-year-old began taking horseback-riding lessons, he doesn't have to hold onto a door or someone's hand when taking difficult steps, his parents say. The twice-a-week lessons have also strengthened his back muscles and improved his posture.
Eric is a student of the Carousel Special Equestrians program in West Covina--a free, therapeutic program designed to help the mentally and physically handicapped exercise by developing equestrian skills.
Eric was 7 months old when doctors discovered that he was hydrocephalic, a condition characterized by an abnormal increase in the amount of fluid around the brain, which in turn affects brain development. He was 3 years old when he suffered a brain hemorrhage that damaged his optic nerve and left him legally blind.
People with disabilities often lack muscle control, said Evonne Hillmann, coordinator of the Carousel program. Holding a horse's reins improves finger movement and strengthens arms, and back and pelvic muscles are worked each time the animal moves, she said.
"The warmth of a horse helps relax the muscles," Hillmann explained. "The natural movement of a 1,000-pound horse stimulates dozens of muscle groups, which improve balance, posture, strength and circulation."
More than 120 disabled children and adults participate each week in the program at the Ridge Riders Equestrian Center, which is hidden in a dusty, tree-lined area on Citrus Avenue, south of the San Bernardino Freeway. There is a long waiting list.
According to Solvang-based Direct Link, a nationwide database for the disabled, Carousel is the only such program in the San Gabriel Valley. It is supported by Mt. San Antonio College, the city of West Covina, private donations, and fund-raisers.
Students register for the recreational classes at the college in Walnut, or at the center at 300 S. Citrus Ave.
It costs about $25,000 a year to feed and care for the horses, which are donated to the program, said Pat Morris, an instructor hired by Mt. SAC.
Before the horses are used in the program, Morris determines if they have mild temperaments. Most of the horses are well-trained former show horses and are not likely to do anything that would harm the disabled riders, she said.
Once the students conquer the usual initial fears, they are taught the parts of the horse, various gaits, care and grooming, saddling, and mounting and dismounting, Morris said.
Before enrolling, Timothy Musick, 4, who has cerebral palsy, could not open his hands and his leg movement was stiff, according to his grandparents, who brought him for a ride recently.
"He's come a long way since coming here a year and a half ago," said his grandmother, Rosemary Musick of El Monte. "It has given him confidence and eventually it will help him stand and, maybe, walk by himself."
At a recent lesson, Timothy sat on a horse while two volunteers helped him develop hand and eye coordination by handing him yellow and blue striped rings, which he looped on a short pole.
Monique Goetz, 19, of Glendora, who has Down's syndrome, rides on Monday and Wednesday evenings. Her mother, Georgette Goetz, said the program is a blessing because her daughter, the youngest of eight children, had always wanted to take horseback-riding lessons.
"The program is excellent," Georgette Goetz said. "She loves it. Even in the heat, she wants to come anyway."
Since Monique Goetz started riding three years ago, her posture has improved because she has to ride with her shoulders back, her mother said.
She is now an advanced rider who competes in the Special Olympics as well as regular horse shows, and she has won numerous first- and second-place ribbons and trophies.
But the young woman started out slowly. She would sit on a horse while a volunteer led her around the arena. Recently, she showed off her skills by walking and trotting the horse.
Diamond Bar residents Danny and Debbie Johnson and their daughter Kristen, 5, watched as Eric Johnson struggled to take off the black riding helmet, which is required for protection from head injury.
"He hates to wear anything on his head," Danny Johnson said with a smile.
After two volunteers helped Eric dismount from Softy, he walked around to pet the horse and was greeted with licks and nibbles on the face. The blond-haired boy returned the horse's affection with slobbery kisses.
"Eric loves it. He enjoys the horses," Debbie Johnson said as she watched her son. "There aren't a lot of things he can show us he likes. You learn to appreciate the small things."