The old saying, "The outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man," also holds true for a precocious, freckle-faced, 6-year-old girl.
Sitting tall in the saddle on a fiery Arabian from the Egyptian desert, a proud Ashlee Allington forgets that her tiny legs, crippled from cerebral palsy, prevent her from being "one of the kids" who are taking swimming and ballet lessons.The Roy first-grader is one of the Freedom Riders - adults and children who once a week are free from their physical handicaps.
"You put them on a horse and you have given them back their legs. It gives them a sense of control in a world they have no control over," said Mike McFarland, a volunteer who's donated his time and mount weekly to the program since its inception three years ago.
The program was started by Steve Spencer, a physical therapist at McKay-Dee Hospital in Ogden, who saw the therapeutic advantage - both physically and emotionally - of putting handicapped people on horses.
"I was working with many adolescent patients who had been horseback riders before their injuries," Spencer reminisced. "One of the things we work for in rehabilitation is to get people back into their mainstream of life - engaged in recreational, as well as vocational and educational kinds of lifestyles."
Spencer decided to see if he could get a couple of the riders back on horses.
Within months, the Handicapped Equestrian Program, sponsored by the hospital's Stewart Rehabilitation Center and the Easter Seal Society, was up and running.
Its pace hasn't slowed.
From Salt Lake to Brigham City, children and adults who suffer with spinal cord injuries, cerebral palsy and multiple sclerosis, as well as stroke victims and amputees, ride in the Ogden Stadium each Tuesday afternoon.
Each participant benefits.
"They get a lot of personal satisfaction and feeling of self-worth," Spencer said. "It enhances the quality of their lives because they can function on a horse almost as normally as a normal adult."
It's a welcome chance at mobility for people like Nathan Crowton, the 17-year-old second vice president of Bonneville High School. Although he can barely walk without arm braces or crutches, he gallops around the arena on a horse with the ease of his supervisor.
Horseback riding is a natural treatment environment for cerebral palsy patients.
`By spreading their legs over the horse, it breaks up the spasticity in their lower extremities and allows them more freedom in their upper extremities," Spencer said.
While on horses, the patients do reaching and stretching exercises - reaching down to touch their toes, rotating their trunk to touch the back of the saddle. They're also put through reflex-inhibiting postures.
"When these kids lay on their backs they have a tendency to extend their arms," the therapist said. "We have them lean back in the saddle and fold their arms. Because they have a tendency to flex, we get them to lean forward, reach down and give the horse a hug."
The Freedom Riders do essentially the same exercises they would in the hospital clinic, "but on the back of the horse they are more compliant, more enthused and excited. It's a fun way to do physical therapy."
In fact, "it's really the most fun thing they do all week," McFarland said. "A lot of the little kids are so excited that they get dressed at 8 in the morning, put on their boots and hats and wait all day to ride."
The riders - 10 children and 15 adults - aren't the only ones who benefit. Sherry Ferrin, coordinator, said the program thrives because of the 20 to 30 dedicated volunteers who each Tuesday bring their horses to the arena, and then spend at least three hours turning novice riders into fine horsemen, mastering posse and parade routines.
As enrollment increases, so will the need for volunteers. For every five children participating, 15 volunteers are required. Financial contributions are also always welcomed as the program's current $8,000 annual budget needs a boost.
Those wishing to contribute can send donations in care of the Freedom Riders to the McKay-Dee Foundation, McKay-Dee Hospital.