Roland Prior and Jim Barnett work on the new indoor arena for Riding for the Handicapped of Western Pennsylvania on Grubbs Road in McCandless.
By Jill Cueni-Cohen
After more than 30 years of helping children with disabilities by using therapeutic horseback riding, a nonprofit has found a new home in McCandless and hopes to resume its program next month with the addition of an indoor arena.
Riding for the Handicapped of Western Pennsylvania was forced to move from the S.F. Ford farm on Cedar Run Road in Indiana Township when the property owner put the horse farm up for sale. The organization's president, Carol Shupe of Franklin Park, said ending the program was never an option.
"We need to keep the program going because it's good for the kids, but it's also good for all of us," she said of the close-knit group of women who have been volunteering their time and effort to run the program, which offers the riding free to disabled children.
Program director Toots Abbott of Pine has been with the program since its inception in 1979.
The organization boards its horses at a horse-boarding business on Grubbs Road in McCandless that is owned by Mrs. Abbott's sister, Wanda Haney and her husband Frank.
"My sister has always supported us, and we already board our 10 horses there, so it seemed like a natural fit," Mrs. Abbott said.
The one thing the Haney farm lacked was an indoor riding arena.
"One of our instructor/board members, Jim McHugh, a volunteer firefighter, died, and he left us some money," Mrs. Abbott said. In appreciation, the arena will be named after him.
"He died before the farm went up for sale," Mrs. Abbott said. "He always worried about where we would go and how we would afford it. He never touched his retirement fund because he wanted that money to be there for us."
In addition to Mr. McHugh's contribution, the Women's Board of Pittsburgh held its annual benefit auction and chose Riding for the Handicapped of Western Pennsylvania as a recipient a couple of years ago. Those two donations have covered the majority of the arena costs, but the group still needs help, Mrs. Abbott said.
The organization is administered by a 13-member volunteer board and has more than 60 trained community volunteers, including nurses and physical therapists. It also has seven certified instructors.
Three volunteers are needed for each rider and some people work solely on grooming the horses.
In addition to fundraisers, the organization relies on individual, business and corporate donations to meet the $80,000 it costs annually to operate.
Riders range in age from 2 to 18. For clients who lack muscle coordination, riding on a horse uses the same muscle movements of the hip and pelvis that are used to walk, which gives them a sense of freedom of mobility. Mrs. Abbott said horses also are particularly good with autistic children.
"Horses seem to have some type of calming effect on children with autism," she said. "We've had some riders who have never touched an animal. After riding, they're willing to touch a horse, which is amazing."
The program opening has been delayed this year while the arena is being built, and riders such as 8-year-old Norah Carter are eager to get back in the saddle.
"This will be her fourth year riding," said her mother, Rebecca Carter, 39, of Shaler. Norah was born with a congenital condition that causes problems with balance. She also has hip dysplasia and scoliosis. "She needs help with balance and core stability and has a limp. Being on a horse has really helped with her running and walking," her mother said.
"Horses are so pretty, and it's amazing to ride them," Norah said, adding that her life goal is to be the first woman to win the Kentucky Derby. "I like that they're so big, and when they move, they go faster than a human, so it's a lot more fun than walking."
Mrs. Carter said Norah's balance is much better than it used to be and she's stronger. The fact that the program is free means a lot to families.
"A lot of these programs are either billed through insurance or they're at a cost," Mrs. Carter said.
Mrs. Abbott said she hopes the arena is finished in time to restart the program by the middle of July. She stressed the need for volunteers and donations.
"There is a long waiting list of riders, but not enough volunteers," she said. "No experience necessary, just a love of kids and animals."