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WOMAN USES HORSE SENSE TO HELP CHILDREN OVERCOME DISABILITIES.

Byline: Victoria Giraud

Horses can play a major role in helping the physically disabled says Nancy Pitchford, founder of Heads Up in Saugus.

Nancy and her group of 40 volunteers work with disabled children on horseback every weekend on U.S. Forestry land in Bouquet Canyon, helping them improve their balance and their lives.

Children diagnosed with cerebral palsy, spina bifida, head trauma and prenatal stroke, as well as a great number of others who don't have a true diagnosis, are helped through this unusual therapy.

``The results are phenomenal,'' Nancy enthused. ``It's all exercise. The kids are not aware of the therapeutic value. They bond with the horse, and their self-esteem goes up.''

Most of the children Nancy works with have never even learned to crawl. On a horse, they tone their muscles, their circulation improves, and they learn what balance is.

``The hip of the horse and the human are identical. The horse stimulates the same action,'' Nancy explained.

Since Nancy formed her nonprofit organization 10 years ago with one horse, she and her volunteers have helped 100 children. Since then the organization has grown to a stable of eight horses. Three volunteers work with each child.

``We now have 14 kids. This is long term, since we stay with them from one to five or six years,'' Nancy elaborated.

Nancy remembered a couple of specific cases where children improved dramatically. Twin boys with cerebral palsy entered the program when they were 5 years old.

``They arrived in electric wheelchairs, and four years later walked out.''

They progressed from learning balance on horseback, to wearing braces, working on parallel bars, and then to using canes before they could walk.

``Saying goodbye to them was sad; I cried for four days,'' Nancy recalled.

A little girl who'd had a prenatal stroke in the womb entered the program with a tracheal tube to help her breathe. At first she couldn't ride, and her throat had to be suctioned every 10 minutes so that she could breathe. The riding improved her respiratory system so much the tube could be eliminated. She could eventually ride and then walk. Before long she was able to learn sign language and start speech therapy.

Disabled children are not the only beneficiaries of the program, Nancy said.

``Ninety percent of the people who come to the ranch as volunteers heal themselves from traumas or even cancer. They tell me they are benefiting more from it than the children. The kids' attitudes are so positive it's inspirational to the rest of us.''

The idea of using horses for therapy originated in England after World War II. They were used for helping children who had been polio victims and to rehabilitate veterans who were amputees.

Nancy trained with Maudie Hunter Warfel. More than 25 years ago Warfel had been a restless, young American rich girl sent to England for pleasure by her frustrated parents. While there she learned about the horse program and was so impressed that she devoted herself to it for the rest of her life and brought the idea to the United States.

It is now a medically recognized program.

Not surprisingly, a horse led Nancy to Heads Up. She had always loved horses, but never owned one.

``I had to fight my way to horses. At 39, after a divorce, I found Dusty and fell in love with this palomino mare, a show hunter.''

Nancy worked with the horse for two years before she could ride her, since Dusty's previous owner had neglected her. Then she wanted to share her horse.

``I was a TV director for Lockheed and had a lot of deaf friends. I wanted to teach deaf kids to ride. I sent fliers to special education classes.''

Soon Nancy, who has no children of her own, was working with both deaf and cerebral palsy children and needed an extra pony. Her program grew so rapidly she soon became a nonprofit organization.

Heads Up children don't stop at just helping themselves; they also work toward competing in the annual horse show sponsored by Cal Net (California Network Equestrian Therapy) in Rancho Cucamonga. They compete in equitation, pole bending, vaulting and Western and English riding.

``They're very competitive; you'd be surprised,'' Nancy pointed out.

Nancy's beloved Dusty died tragically three years ago from a blocked trachea. Nancy at first was devastated and almost closed Heads Up. Friends wanted to help by getting her another horse, but Nancy could only remember the great bond she had established with Dusty.

``I finally came to grips with it, and decided not to have another horse. I couldn't split my attention,'' Nancy remembered. Heads Up needed her full attention.

Nancy finds time for other activities besides Heads Up. She works as a movie extra and produces three shows a week on local public access television, Channel 20. She produces ``Our Disabled Community.'' Her husband, Steve, who is blind, hosts the program, and invites guests to discuss surviving their disabilities. ``Animal Talk'' and ``Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow,'' a show that addresses a variety of topics, including holistic health, are her other two shows. The shows, which alternate, play on Mondays at 7 p.m. and Thursdays at 9:30 p.m.

Recently Nancy has found local organizations are aware of her program and are volunteering to hold fund-raisers.

``It's the first time people are calling me to do fund-raisers,'' she said happily. Nancy's appreciative of their help, for she has ambitions for Heads Up. ``I'd like to raise money to build a barn, enlarge our arena, and put in an office so we can train more volunteers and help more people.''

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Photo: (color--ran in SAC only) Nancy Pitchford runs the th erapeutic riding program Heads Up in Saugus for the disabled.

John Lazar/Daily News
COPYRIGHT 1996 Daily News
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Mar 30, 1996
Words:970
Previous Article:2 HIGH-PROFILE SANTA CLARITA OFFICIALS ANNOUNCE DEPARTURE.
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