CROWNSVILLE, Md. (AP) — Katie Parry's muscles were so weakened from cerebral palsy that when she rode her first horse at age 4, all she could do was lie down on its back.
Nearly 20 years later on a recent spring day, Parry, 23, and her mother, Debbie, made their way from the stables at Maryland Therapeutic Riding. Parry's key chain jangled as her mechanized wheelchair bounced along the dirt road.
For most of her life, Parry has been riding horses with the therapeutic center.
Her mother said riding helped her relax so much that "she would fall asleep" during rides. The lessons also helped Parry build strength and increase her muscle tone to the point where she can sit up in the saddle on her own.
"She's progressed," Debbie Parry said. "She's got core strength now."
Parry's story is just one of the many triumphs of the riding center in Crownsville. On Saturday, the farm is opening its pastures to guests for its fifth annual Derby Day, one of the few times the center asks for help.
"We have seen riders say their first words, take their first steps, gain self-confidence, find happiness and renewal in the saddle, and progress from a wheelchair to independent riding," Executive Director Kenneth McCreedy said. "We are proud of what we do for our community. At the same time, all that we do is made possible by a community that embraces our mission and showers us with the gifts of their time and treasure."
About 80 percent of the center's work is funded by community support, including the Derby Day fundraiser.
Derby Day brought in about $100,000 last year. This year's goal is $300,000.
At Derby Day, the indoor arena is transformed into a slice of Kentucky, complete with mint juleps and a viewing of the iconic "Run for the Roses." Guests also hear a story from one of the riders selected to share experiences at the riding center.
The therapeutic riding program was founded in 1996 by Naomi Parry, who is no relation to Katie Parry and her mother. She discovered horseback riding as a type of rehabilitation after a traumatic car accident.
The therapy center originally was in Annapolis but now sprawls across 26 acres of rolling hills in Anne Arundel County. The property includes several pastures, an outdoor ring, stables, a walking trail, and mobile offices for volunteers and administration. The indoor arena is lined with hypoallergenic flooring and equipped with a wheelchair lift and ramp.
The center provides three types of therapy lessons: equine learning, therapeutic riding and hippotherapy.
Equine training teaches students about the care and treatment of horses, such as feeding and brushing. Therapeutic riding involves the basic skills of horseback riding.
"Clients are learning how to control their muscles and how horses take instructions," Development Director Mary Dulaney said.
Hippotherapy includes various types of therapy while riding a horse.
Why try to rehabilitate a person on the back of a large, moving animal? Program Director Kelly Rodgers said horse riding is a great way to reintroduce movement and order into clients' lives.
She said horse movements are similar to the way humans walk. "It gives the participant the same gait," she said.
The riding center works to find the right match between horse and rider. Each horse has a unique stride, and "every client is different," Rodgers said. "It's quite a puzzle to put together."
The farm has the capacity for 15 horses. It currently has eight with another two on trial.
The clients are ages 2 to 87, though most are children and young adults.
"Our clients range from those with autism to cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, PTSD, traumatic brain injuries, and at one point we had amputees," Dulaney said. "Most of the challenges are cognitive or physical, but it runs the gamut."
It takes a special type of horse to work at the Maryland Therapeutic Center. The animal must be immune to strange noises and sudden movements, and not mind being surrounded by volunteers during therapy sessions.
"Horses have very gentle souls," said Rodgers. "They're very intuitive to humans."
Riders can show quick improvement, though each case is different.
"Sometimes we see changes immediately," Rodgers said. "We had a 4-year-old client that couldn't stand up. After one month of hippotherapy, they were taking steps. I've seen a non-verbal child say to a horse, 'Walk on.' The goal is to encourage independence."
Information from: The Washington Times, http://www.washtimes.com