September 23, 2014

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Kids experience the joy of horses

AVON LAKE — From the seat of her wheelchair, Dunn, an 11-year-old paint quarterhorse, looked to 17-year-old Kristina Sliman like an insurmountable beast to climb.

Yet, with eyes that sparkled with delight and a smile that stretched from ear to ear, the teen begged her mother for just one ride. All she wanted was to  feel the wind against her face as she slowly trotted around the equestrian ring with the massive animal beneath her.

Normally, such a request from a child born with cerebral palsy and restricted to a wheelchair is difficult to grant, but on Saturday, members of the Avon Lake Saddle Club aimed to do facilitate that experience in its first ever event held in conjunction with the Children’s Developmental Center of Amherst. Horse handlers and volunteers were happy to help Kristina’s mother, Debbie Sliman of Amherst, hoist her daughter from the safety of her wheelchair into a leather saddle perched on Dunn’s back.

JASON MILLER / CHRONICLE
Montana Griffiths, 4, of Lorain, takes a lap around the equestrian center at Weise Field in Avon Lake on Saturday.

For a brief moment, the teen was fearful of falling. But Tom Miller, CDC executive director, quickly eased her apprehensions with a well-placed hand to the small of her back. It stayed there steadying Kristina during the entire ride.

“Don’t worry. We won’t let you fall,” he said reassuringly as Dunn’s owner, Jill Carpenter of Avon Lake, took the lead and slowly led the horse around the ring at Weiss Field. “Just enjoy the ride.”

Kristina was more than willing to oblige, letting her blond ponytail bounce in the wind as she was nothing but smiles and giggles.
“She’s in love with horses,” Sliman said of her daughter. “This will make her whole week.”

Mary Oring, president of the saddle club, watched the girl ride and couldn’t help but smile. Kristina’s response to Dunn was exactly what she was hoping for when she pitched the idea to Miller.

“It’s really all about making these kids smile,” Oring said. “If it makes just one child smile, then this was all worth it.”

Looking around Weiss Field with delight as kids with varying degrees of mental and physical disabilities enjoyed the event, Oring recalled the conversation that started it all. She and Miller, both affiliated with United Way of Greater Lorain County, were attending a United Way meeting and making small talk when Oring casually asked Miller if he ever used horse therapy with the children at the center.

Not really, he said. The cost and effort to coordinate such a thing is too much for the center to handle. Plus, he would need to find a group of docile horses to bring to the children, many of whom are introverted.

The words got the wheels turning in Oring’s head. As president of the saddle club, Oring knew she could provide the facility, volunteers, time and horses. All Miller had to do, she said, was provide the kids, and it was a done deal.

A call from Oring to her niece, Kathleen Sullivan, got the ball rolling on what would eventually be called Hay Day. Sullivan, vice president of the saddle club, had spent time in the mid-1990s working at a horse therapy ranch in Dallas and knew that, if given the chance, the children would glean so much from the experience.

“I knew I had to do it,” she said. “It’s amazing to see the change in the children when they see the horses. It’s something really special.”

Carpenter, the mother of Austin, an 11-year-old boy with autism, understands the change. She said she sees it in her son each time he mounts Dunn, the family’s horse.

“It’s very calming for him,” said Carpenter. “He can grab it and kiss it, and the horse just lets him do it. The look on his face is pure happiness.”

For parents of special needs children, such moments are rare. At home, the children are safe in their familiar surroundings, but attempting to go outside sometimes comes with a lot of uncertainty.

Lynn Berkley, of Columbia Station, said there are not a lot of places she feels comfortable taking her children, both of whom have cerebral palsy. While 15-year-old Brandon uses a wheelchair and 14-year-old Courtney can walk with guidance, neither talk.

“When you take them to a quote, unquote ‘normal place,’ they are stared at or made fun of because of who they are,” Berkley said. “But here, people understand their special needs. They’re just kids who want to be kids.”

As if on cue, Courtney motioned to her mother for another bag of chips. It was her third of the day.

Berkley was happy to grant the wish, and Courtney’s face lit up. It was the same expression of happiness her mother said she had when she ran her hand along the soft mane of a miniature horse.

“I think this day was just great for my kids.”

Contact Lisa Roberson at 653-6268 or lroberson@chroniclet.com.