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Handicapped riding conference to draw attendees from U.S., Canada to area

Tuesday, March 8, 2005

Local equine enthusiasts plan both to learn and pass along useful skills and new information March 11-13 at the Region IV Conference of the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association, hosted by Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College outside Terre Haute.

Among attendees from Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, Ontario, Canada, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin will be instructors, volunteers, riders and supporters from Little Creek Special Equestrians, Center Point. Executive Director Penny Akers is a conference committee chair and is also participating on a committee for the upcoming national conference in Indianapolis.

"Our center's doing a lot of neat things that will help educate people in a lot of various areas," Akers said. "After a conference, you're really pepped up because you've gotten to talk to a lot of people and learn new ideas."

Registration Friday will start at 8 a.m. at Rooney Library at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, and the conference will continue through Sunday afternoon. Weekend events will include demonstrations, lectures, workshops and hands-on activities. The cost for NARHA members is $125 and $150 for nonmembers. Akers said the anticipated turnout is approximately 120 participants.

"It's been a few years since it's been in Indiana," she said. "It really gives us a lot of information and ways to look at things."

A number of speakers are scheduled for the event, including some local equestrians. On Saturday, Chip Hunt, Brazil, will give a lecture "Straight from the Farrier's Mouth." Meanwhile, Harrison Harden, Clay City, of the Indiana Members - Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse Association, will give a talk "Opening the Gate to Gaited Horses." NARHA Instructor Chris Holmes, Bloomington, who teaches at Little Creek, will inform attendees about physical disabilities.

Fundraising, board development, administrative issues, various disabilities, the impact of deafness and blindness on riders and their horses, and how instructors can best meet the needs of all students and appropriate horse selection will be included in the range of discussion topics.

"So it gives us a lot of new information we can take back to our centers," Akers said.

Cloverdale resident Erik Rhoden, 14, will be featured in a special drill performance. Rhoden has been riding with the Little Creek Special Equestrians for two years, and has participated in the equestrian division of the Special Olympics twice. His routine will include two musical selections by Whitney Houston and Queen. Rhoden will be performing with an able-bodied partner and will be walking, trotting and cantering.

"He's the only student taking part," Akers said.

While volunteers and instructors from Little Creek are involved in conference organization and planning, horses from the center will also be used at the conference sessions, including an Icelandic horse. The local therapeutic horseback riding center will be able to demonstrate to other attendees how gaited horses can be incorporated into lessons. Most use trotting horses.

"A lot of centers don't know how to use gaited horses," she said. "Pretty much every center in the state - region - don't use gaited horses."

Another session will help instructors learn how to promote independence in riders. The skills they cultivate at centers like Little Creek Special Equestrians carry over into any kind of horse show, and helps get students involved in activities "mainstream" youth take part in, she explained.

"Our rider that's doing this drill routine - not a lot of centers are doing that," Akers said, stressing that not only will Rhoden's horse be cantering, but he will have no leader or side walkers. "He's totally independent."

Through the teenager's performance, Akers said he will help demonstrate how special riders can stretch their boundaries, and help those involved in therapeutic horseback riding.

"You still have to be safe about it, but you don't want to let them stagnate at that level. You have to keep challenging them," she said. "It shows them they're capable of more than people may think they are."

In its third full year of giving lessons, Little Creek Special Equestrians has 12 students. Lessons begin April 9, and new instructors will be added this spring. Chris Holmes, who is speaking at the conference, and Bruce Moffitt will join Akers as certified NARHA instructors. They also have CPR and first aid training and have worked as Special Olympics coaches. They have also worked together at other centers.

"We'll be able to add more services and expertise," she said.

A fundraiser at Pizza Inn is set for March 17, and volunteer training starts March 26. Akers said that volunteers don't need to have any experience with horses or disabilities. She explained that aside from its inherent rewards, volunteering is an excellent way of filling community service hours required by some universities, or to round out college applications. Volunteers range in age from about 14 up through older adults.

"We're always looking for volunteers. It takes one to three volunteers for each rider," she said. "There are all different things that people can do."

Lessons cost $20 per session for one hour once a week. For those who cannot afford to pay, sponsors help finance some students' training, like the Brazil Rotary Club and Cloverdale American Legion. Riders must be at least 4 years old and Little Creek has had riders in their 40s and 50s. A couple of new riders are in their 20s. They must also have some kind of special need, which includes a wide range.

Little Creek Special Equestrians riders have been invited to several events, but have been unable to go because they were lacking a horse trailer. The Crosslane Community Church Vacation Bible School raised $1,200, while the Indiana Members - Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse Association donated $1,000, and with those funds, the center will be able to purchase a three-horse trailer.

"There's just so much going here all the time," she said.



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