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Horsing around: Therapeutic riding program becomes Maryland Horse Discovery Center

Frederick News-Post - 7/28/2022

Jul. 29—Nine-year-old Chloe Williams picked up a cookie cutter coated in water-soluble paint and gently stamped it onto a white Icelandic horse named Hilde.

When Chloe lifted the cookie cutter, the outline of a red heart stood out on Hilde's rear.

At the Frederick County 4H Therapeutic Riding Program, people with disabilities are invited to ride and engage with horses at Silverado Stables in Lewistown. The nonprofit held an open house Thursday in which children ranging from 5 to 10 years old, of all abilities, were invited to ride horses, groom them and tour the barn.

The therapeutic riding program started in 1983, but just recently became a certified Maryland Horse Discovery Center.

The Maryland Department of Agriculture Horse Industry Board launched a network of 35 horse discovery centers in 2015, according to the department's website. There are now 42 horse discovery centers in 18 counties.

The centers are licensed stables that "strive to provide the general public with a safe, friendly, and educational experience, particularly for those individuals who have never or rarely experienced horses personally," according to the department.

The Frederick County 4H Therapeutic Riding Program recently applied and was accepted as a horse discovery center.

"I'm hoping it'll help us bring in recognition of who we are," director Debbie Endlich said.

Her husband, Cor, helped start the program.

Endlich is hopeful the horse discovery center designation brings more volunteers. They have roughly 40 to 50 volunteers now, but Endlich wishes that number would double.

"Our classes are limited by how many volunteers we have," instructor Kimberly Pheobus said.

Barns need to be cleaned and horses need to be cared for, but volunteers also play a special role in supporting students. Side walkers walk on the ground beside students in the saddle, providing encouragement and assistance. Horse leaders lead the horse or pony during lessons, also supporting the rider.

Thurmont resident Joy Jenkins has been volunteering for 16 years.

"I love it," Jenkins said. "The kids are wonderful. It's very rewarding to work with them."

Occupational and physical therapists help design exercises for students, according to Endlich. Depending on their abilities, students can practice reaching, stretching and working their muscles while in the saddle. Riding lessons can incorporate skills such as reading, math and identifying colors.

Students have ranged in age from 2 to 80 years old, Endlich said.

Pheobus said students have included people who are blind and people with cerebral palsy. There is a motorized lift for people who use wheelchairs. Pheobus has found that students with autism respond especially well to the program.

"They'll open up to a horse more than they open up to us," she said, and students in general "learn so much better when they're having fun."

Pheobus estimated they are serving about 45 students currently, with a wait list of roughly 25. There are about 13 horses and ponies in the therapy program, according to barn manager Missy Miller.

Equines that are no longer fit to participate in the therapy program live out their days at the farm, volunteer Rose Bartz said. It takes a special temperament for a horse or pony to be in the program, and they need to be healthy for rides.

During the open house, two little girls in matching horse-print dresses groomed a horse named Phil Mar in the barn. Sisters Lorraine, 7, and Sinclair Sivilli, 4, passed their brushes over his sweaty coat as their mother took photos on her cellphone. The family came from New Market for the occasion.

"It's their first experience with horses," their mother, Rebecca Sivilli ,said.

Phil Mar had just finished giving rides in the ring. He looked like he was about to doze off as the girls gently brushed him.

A dog named Luna wandered between the barn and riding ring, licking children's faces. Rows of riding helmets sat waiting on a wooden table as volunteers prepped horses and ponies for rides. Horses in the stables poked their heads out of stalls, searching for treats.

"They have fun," Endlich said.

Follow Mary Grace Keller on Twitter: @MaryGraceKeller


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