By Marsha Dorgan
Thirteen-year-old Maya Derr, sits high in the saddle on Frank, her favorite 28-year-old Welsh Pony, flashing a grin as big as the state of Texas. The Napa youngster, who suffers from cerebral palsy, is one of the 12 disabled students in Cornerstone Assisted Riding & Equitherapy. The five-acre CARE site in rural Napa offers riding lessons, which, not only teaches equestrian skills, but also provides self-confidence and esteem, physical therapy and tons of love and smiles.
CARE, a non-profit organization, has been in the Napa Valley since 1985. They moved from American Canyon to their new Napa digs in 2012. We work with children with disabilities from 8 to 18 years old. We also have a few adults with disabilities,” said Bonnie Becker, CARE treasurer and a volunteer. Many of our kids have never ridden before. The lessons are also extremely good for building core strength. We have a girl in a wheelchair, who when she first came had to be lifted onto the horse,” Bonnie said. “And now, she can get on the horse on her own with some help. That’s the type of progress we want to see.”
Maya arrived with her mother, Ashley Deer, around 3 p.m., on a sunny Wednesday afternoon all smiles and giggles anticipating her lesson. As her mother pushed Maya’s wheelchair up the ramp, two volunteers prepared her favorite equine buddy, Frank, for mounting. With minimal assistance from the volunteers, Maya hugged Frank’s neck while wiggling her leg over the saddle, edging her feet into the stirrups Then, Frank was led into the covered arena where CARE chief instructor Sharon Commisso took over. Sharon started as a CARE volunteer in 2005. She is now certified with the Professional Association Therapeutic Horsemanship. Sharon led Frank around the arena with volunteers on each side of the horse. “I usually start with a game. We match the students to the horse. There are balance issues we must take into account,” Sharon said.
Many of the kids are accompanied by a sidewalker on each side of the horse as it moves around the arena. Sharon believes there is more value in the lesson than just learning to ride a horse. “It stimulates the nervous system and gives the kids balance coordination, physical strength,” she said. “And it also is a great tool for social skills. They learn good manners, how to listen and follow instructions and the bond with the horse is amazing.
“It is so rewarding to see that big smile from a child who suffers from autism while they are sitting on the horse. It is something for them to look forward to,” Sharon added. Maya’s mother Ashley whole heartedly agrees “Maya just absolutely loves coming here. She looks forward to it,” she said. “It’s so good for her to get out of her wheelchair. It’s just amazing to see how far she has come. She just loves Frank (the horse.) She wrote a story about him. And Frank is the gentlest animal. He’s just perfect for her.” Ashley has high praise for Sharon and the volunteers. “They are incredible. They are all so caring and really love their students,” she said. “I can’t say enough good things about them.”
Amy Youngs, 27, who suffers from RETT, is one of the few adults with disabilities enrolled at CARE. Amy has been at Cornerstone (CARE) for 10 years,” said her mother Kathy. “Amy is non-verbal and has scoliosis. Her doctor recommended we try ’horseback’ riding for Amy. It worked extremely well.” Kathy also touts the social benefits of CARE. “Amy loves it and looks so forward to coming here,” Kathy said. “It is really wonderful for her self-esteem. Amy is no stranger to the world of horses. We go to Tennessee every summer. Amy rode her first Tennessee Walker when she was 15,” said Kathy, beaming.
Ron Reid has been a CARE volunteer for 10 months. “I get personal satisfaction volunteering with Cornerstone. Just seeing how happy these students are is the high point of my work,” he said. “I get just as much out of it as the kids do.”
Many of the five CARE board members are volunteers as well. Sharon is the only paid employee. The volunteers also train and care for the horses and maintain the stable and the outside and inside arenas. In addition to old-timer Frank, there are two other horses Roscoe, a 24-year-old Quarter horse and youngster Annie, 15. The organization is funded by donations and fundraisers.
Lessons are available Monday and Wednesday afternoons and Saturday mornings. Cost is $40 a lesson for 10 sessions. Information is available carebayarea.org or 888-922-7366.