A therapeutic trot

Parkwood Therapeutic Riding Center offers special needs clients therapy through horseback riding.

  • Randee Stevens waits for her daughter, 19-year-old Nika, to finish her riding lesson at Parkwood Therapeutic Riding Center. Nika has severe autism. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTO

  • One of the horses at the program peeks out of the barn window. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTO

  • Horse owner Cathy McCullough and her horse, King Arthur, prepare for a ride at the Parkwood Therapeutic Riding Center, which uses horse riding as a meditative therapy. McCullough has allowed the program to use King Arthur for rides. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTO

  • Rider Lisa Arnold also takes lessons at the Parkwood Therapeutic Riding Center. Here, she is pictured with King Arthur. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTO

  • King Arthur, the biggest horse in the therapy program, eats hay and rests in between rides. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTO

  • Cathy McCullough runs alongside King Arthur. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTO

  • Sarah Del Ricci (left) and her sister Danielle Bacskay (right) help Nika (center) steer the pony, Isabella, during a riding lesson. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTO

  • Back in the saddle: At top, left, the right side of Cathy McCullough’s face was paralyzed after surgery, which saved her life from a cancerous tumor. She bought King Arthur, an 800-pound horse that had some behavior problems. Together, over the years, the two have helped one another grow stronger mentally and physically. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTO

Those who don’t know Randee Stevens’ daugh­ter, Nika, might think that she doesn’t com­mu­nic­ate very well.

The 19-year-old Winchester Park res­id­ent has over­come mild men­tal re­tard­a­tion, severe aut­ism and the after-ef­fects of mal­nour­ish­ment dur­ing her early child­hood in her nat­ive Ro­mania.

She speaks in sounds and ges­tures, but not words. Yet, she man­ages to com­mu­nic­ate quite well in a con­du­cive en­vir­on­ment. In fact, she speaks volumes to the horses she rides in a North­east-based non­profit thera­peut­ic pro­gram.

Nika is a cli­ent of the Park­wood Thera­peut­ic Rid­ing Cen­ter, which vet­er­an com­pet­it­ive rider and train­er Sarah Del Ricci foun­ded about a year ago at Black Lake Run Farm in Mech­an­ic­sville. Stevens learned of the pro­gram last spring after vo­lun­teer­ing there as part of a com­munity ser­vice pro­ject through Home De­pot.

Nika has been rid­ing every week since then. She star­ted off with a quarter horse named Rockin P Bo­ston, then re­cently switched to an aging yet spry pony named Isa­bella, with whom Nika’s be­come fast friends.

“With Bo­ston, he puts his ears to the front when you’re com­ing and he’s al­ways in­ter­ested in what’s go­ing on. Isa­bella is more like the grand­mom who lets the kids crawl all over her,” Stevens said.

Ac­cord­ing to Del Ricci, this bond between horse and rider tran­scends the spe­cif­ic dis­ab­il­it­ies, or cap­ab­il­it­ies, of the per­son in­volved and grows at a deep­er emo­tion­al level with equal par­ti­cip­a­tion by the horse. The an­im­al senses the strengths and weak­nesses of the rider, just as the rider learns to un­der­stand the per­son­al­ity and body lan­guage of the an­im­al.

“[The horses] totally know what they’re do­ing. We have horses that, when they see their rider com­ing, they start look­ing and bat­ting their eye­lashes,” Del Ricci said. “The horses want that val­id­a­tion and ap­prov­al.”

They also want to be rid­den. For ex­ample, to a seni­or cit­izen like Isa­bella — who is “push­ing 30” years old — the activ­ity gives her a pur­pose and much-needed ex­er­cise. 

The rid­ing pro­gram ac­quired her at auc­tion in June, res­cuing her from al­most cer­tain slaughter. Since then, she’s been eat­ing well, adding weight and look­ing a lot health­i­er.

Mean­while, Nika is mak­ing a lot of pro­gress, too. Del Ricci and her mostly vo­lun­teer staff are not li­censed ther­ap­ists, but they don’t claim or need to be.

“It’s not phys­ic­al ther­apy. It’s more like so­cial ther­apy,” Stevens said. “It’s learn­ing to take turns, fol­low dir­ec­tions, fol­low rules and how to con­trol a large an­im­al.”

Like most cli­ents, Nika spends about one hour a week at the rid­ing cen­ter. Her first duty is to help groom and saddle the horse. Rides can take place in a large fenced area and on the trails of the nearby city and state parks. There are no pub­lic streets in the area. After the ride, cli­ents must help groom the an­im­al again. They can feed snacks such as baby car­rots to the horses.

“Part of this ex­per­i­ence goes home,” Stevens said. “When we’re shop­ping, Nika has to re­mem­ber to buy car­rots and when we get home, she has to cut them in­to chunks to bring here. If she for­gets to buy them, I tell her she’s got to re­mem­ber the car­rots. That makes her grow up a little bit.”

Dur­ing a re­cent ses­sion, Nika seemed a bit re­luct­ant to mount Isa­bella at first, but after a few steps she was hold­ing the reins and dir­ect­ing the horse without hands-on as­sist­ance from Del Ricci. And Nika emerged with an ob­vi­ous sense of pride.

“With kids like her, everything is dic­tated to them. But when they get a sense of con­trol of their own life, it’s con­fid­ence build­ing,” Stevens said.

In Nika’s case, the so­cial­iz­a­tion has helped her reac­cli­mate to her school after the long sum­mer break and helped her mom sleep bet­ter at night.

“After [rid­ing], she’s ready to go home, take a bath, eat and get ready for bed,” Stevens said.

Sim­il­ar les­sons can ap­ply to a wide range of cli­ents in­clud­ing chil­dren and adults with men­tal, phys­ic­al or emo­tion­al chal­lenges. Ac­cord­ing to Del Ricci, horses have been serving people that way since an­cient Greece. Del Ricci is a cer­ti­fied in­struct­or with the Pro­fes­sion­al As­so­ci­ation of Thera­peut­ic Horse­man­ship In­ter­na­tion­al.

“The cool thing about thera­peut­ic rid­ing is we don’t say, ‘If you have seizures, you can’t ride,’ or, ‘If you only have one arm, you can’t ride,’ ” Del Ricci said. “We can’t do [thera­peut­ic] ma­nip­u­la­tions or psych-ther­apy. But what we can do is teach a rid­ing skill that can trans­late in­to a life skill.

“We work with people who have phys­ic­al dis­ab­il­it­ies, men­tal dis­ab­il­it­ies, people who are in re­hab­il­it­a­tion, who have had strokes or car ac­ci­dents. As long as the rider’s phys­i­cian doesn’t give a con­train­dic­a­tion.”

It’s not free. The cen­ter charges $45 per ses­sion with pro­ceeds help­ing to keep the pro­gram go­ing. Schol­ar­ships are avail­able based on need and suit­ab­il­ity for the pro­gram. The cen­ter also of­fers rid­ing les­sons to people without spe­cial needs. It op­er­ates year-round.

“No mat­ter if it’s rain­ing, it’s sev­en de­grees or 107 de­grees, we have par­ents call­ing to say, ‘Don’t can­cel,’ ” Del Ricci said. ••

Con­tact the Park­wood Thera­peut­ic Rid­ing Cen­ter at 215-715-6123 or vis­it www.park­woodtrc.com.

You can reach at wkenny@bsmphilly.com.

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