Disabled can enjoy four-legged therapy

Camper David Bouley, center, of Manchester and volunteers Pam Wheeler, left, and Daryl Hornby and others participating in the riding program provided by High Hopes therapeutic riding center walk across a field at Camp Harkness in Waterford.

Waterford - Brian Fall waited eagerly last week for his turn to ride Half Pint, an Irish sport horse.

Wearing sunglasses and with a black helmet in hand, Fall and four other campers participated in the second day of a new program at Camp Harkness in conjunction with High Hopes Therapeutic Riding Inc.

This was the first time Fall had been on a horse.

He said he has been excited since he found out the horses would be at the summer camp for the handicapped.

"I'm looking forward to it. I like horses," Fall, 29, of Vernon said. "I was happy when I found out."

Camp Harkness has served thousands of children and adults with physical and/or intellectual disabilities since the camp was deeded to the state in the early 1950s by the estate of Edward and Mary Harkness for the use of the handicapped.

The summer camp had a therapeutic equine program for several years, but it was scaled back a few years ago and while some horses remained on the property they were not for campers to ride.

"It was kind of sad because we would come down and come to the fence and watch the horses but they were so far away and the campers couldn't touch them," said Sarah Duchesne, a camp counselor with United Cerebral Palsy.

UCP rents cabins at Harkness for the summer. Groups of different campers attend each week. UCP campers on Wednesday were also looking forward to grooming lessons and carriage driving later in the afternoon.

The horseback riding, carriage driving and grooming program at Camp Harkness is offered to about 20 campers two days a week.

"Campers really ask about it, and they've been asking when they can ride the horses because a lot of them don't get this opportunity anywhere else but camp," Duchesne said. "For campers in wheelchairs for once not everyone is looking down on them and the horse is walking for them."

Because some campers are not comfortable riding a horse, the option to groom the animals or be pulled in a carriage is open, too. Those who are uncomfortable getting that close to a horse can view them up close from behind a fence.

The three horses, Half Pint, Buddy and Candy, and a miniature horse named Lightning, are brought from the High Hopes facility in Old Lyme on Monday and stay through Wednesday. Each rider is accompanied by a leader and one or two volunteers who walk alongside the horse, said Kitty Stalsburg, High Hopes executive director.

All 27 of the High Hopes horses have gone through a rigorous process to ensure that their temperament is mild-mannered enough to work with riders who have special needs.

Horses are primarily donated to the organization, but in some cases, they're loaned to High Hopes for an extended period of time.

Stalsburg said that High Hopes staff first visits with the horse at its own home to evaluate its mannerisms and health. A two-month trial period follows on-site at High Hopes, where staff put the horse through tests that include various sights and sounds a horse might encounter.

"They have to be the type of horse that doesn't have a fight or flight reaction ... they can say, 'Oh, that's a car, oh, that's a plane, oh, that's a person laughing, oh, that's a person running,'" Stalsburg said.

She said the 600 volunteers at High Hopes will share in the duties at the newly reinstituted therapeutic riding program at Camp Harkness. The Old Lyme program has hit its capacity and there is a possibility that the program could expand into Waterford, she said.

"It's a great way to introduce campers to horses. We see a positive reaction when a camper is able to accomplish something on a horse in a matter of 20 minutes," said Lauren Fitzgerald, High Hopes advanced riding and driving instructor. "It's a pretty big deal. It takes a lot of risk. We're strangers to them, they're away from home and at camp in a new situation. To be able to take a risk like that and have fun at the same time is tremendous."



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