Special-needs riders experience 'healing power of the horse'

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 14 2011 7:46 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — Carly Hansen wasn't in the mood for talking Wednesday.

She was wearing the denim, the boots, the trappings of a true horsewoman, but she seemed nervous and her large, pale blue eyes were focused elsewhere.

"She can lose control of her body," said her mother, Lisa Hansen, explaining that her daughter suffers from the neurological disorder alternating hemaplegia of childhood.

"The last two times she fell," she said, referring to Carly's previous horseback riding competitions.

But there she was, leaned up against the stable walls, flanked by her parents and preparing to get back on the horse.

"She loves horseback riding," Lisa Hansen said. "It's one of the major joys of her life."

And when asked how it makes Lisa and her husband, Scott, feel to see their daughter, who often uses the aid of a wheelchair, on a horse, he responded immediately.

"It thrills us," Scott Hansen said.

His wife's eyes filled with tears.

"It's nice for her to have something that makes her happy," she said.

Carly was one of 10 participants with special needs entered in a competition at the Utah State Fair Wednesday. The event was organized by the Kostopulos Dream Foundation as the riders trained at Camp Kostopulos during the summer.

Cheryl Smith, the foundation's development director, said this was the second straight year they've had an event at the Utah State Fairpark and they hope to make it "bigger and better" as the years go on. Participants this year ranged in age from 10 to 54, with various skill levels.

"It's an inclusive event," she said. "People of all abilities come out. Horses are great equalizers. … It's really neat to see the healing power of the horse."

Smith said the horses used were donated to the camp and they are currently at capacity, as many people have found they can't feed and house the animals due to the recession. She praised the animals as gentle and sweet and said they are sensitive to what they're doing.

"Horses know they have someone with special needs (riding them)," Smith said.

Specifically referring to one horse, Chaos, she said: "She knows she's carrying special cargo."

Cathryn Hunt, 16, was riding Chaos in a trails competition Wednesday. She was confident she was going to win. Then again, she was the only competitor in her category.

"I'm going against myself today," she said.

Cathryn has ridden horses since she was 5 years old. Her mother, Caryn, said she wanted her daughter to be able to strengthen her core — a bonus to horseback riding Lisa Hansen also mentioned — but found that it had other benefits as well.

"It gives (Cathryn) a bit of self-confidence," Hunt said. "She loves it so much."

Cathryn ticked off the many things she can do on her horse. She had her mother, brother and grandmother rooting for her Wednesday.

"It makes me feel safe that they're here to support me today," she said.

Vanessa Russell is the camp's horse programs coordinator and said she doesn't like to be told what she can and can't do and knows the people she helps are the same.  She was drawn to the camp because of what it helps people achieve.

"I like helping them be more independent," she said. "Doing things they didn't think they could do and things nobody else thought they could do."

She said there are horse programs at the camp even for those who don't have special needs and she hopes to do more events like the one on Wednesday. She recalled a recent horse expo where she recorded the performance of one of the camp's participants. When the woman watched the video, she started crying.

"That makes it worthwhile," Russell said. "It doesn't pay much. I just do it because I love it."

Ultimately, Carly opted not to ride, but Scott Larsen said that's not uncommon.

"Sometimes she does, sometimes she doesn't," he said. "But the other kids did and they seemed to have a great time."

This was confirmed by Kelsie Wagner, of Kearns, who won a blue first-place ribbon in her trails category, riding the camp's horse Minnie.

"It's exciting," Wagner said of the win.

And as for what she loves about being on a horse?

"Everything."

E-mail: emorgan@desnews.comTwitter: DNewsCrimeTeam

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