November 28, 2004

Walking on Four Strong Legs at Therapeutic Riding Show

Nathan Buckwalter, 26, lives in his own East Lampeter Township apartment. He drives his 1991 Dodge Sprint to his job as a cashier at McDonald's on Greenfield Road.

At first glance, this doesn't sound remarkable. But it is.

Buckwalter was born with cerebral palsy. He walks with the help of leg braces and crutches.

At the age of 5, he became one of the first participants in the then-fledgling Lancaster County Therapeutic Riding, Inc. With the help of a ramp and three volunteers who would lead his specially- trained horse and walk on either side as spotters, Buckwalter galloped away on an adventure that would change his life.

OK, the horse was only walking. But Buckwalter, who rode in the musical dressage program at the program's annual horse show Saturday, was galloping in his mind. With hundreds of pounds of equine muscle beneath him, he was suddenly moving just like everybody else. After years of practice, on Saturday, he could do a four-point trot in time to music.

"Being on the ground on crutches," he said, looking down at legs strapped into molded ankle/foot orthoses or "mafos,""I look different. On a horse, I feel like my own self."

Self-esteem. Balance. Coordination. Posture. A feeling of accomplishment and close contact with the patient power of non- judgmental horses are benefits of a program that began in Lancaster County in 1981 with two instructors and seven riders.

Today, LCTR has seven paid certified instructors and a board of directors. It uses an estimated 1,400 volunteer hours given by area high schoolers, college students and civic groups, and accommodates 40 participants in a series of six-week lessons at Greystone Manor Stables, 1061 Hartman Station Road. There's a waiting list of 30 potential students.

Funded by donations from individuals, corporations, groups like the S. June Smith Center and the Office of Mental Health/Mental Retardation, plus churches like the nearby Worship Center (which owns Greystone Manor), LCTR produces a continuous string of minor miracles.

Quadriplegic Charlie Swinehart, 68, whose limbs spasm in his wheelchair from cerebral palsy, mounts Hobbit, a large white Welsh pony, and makes his way through the obstacle course, raising a fist and giving a guttural shout of triumph as he finishes.

"Horses are intuitive animals," says instructor Patti Draude of Mountville. "Only a small percentage has the temperament to do this kind of work. But if you watch as long as I have, you realize these horses are actually looking out for their riders. A horse will shift his own weight if he feels his rider lose balance.

"I have one student, a 3-year-old boy, who wasn't talking at all when he came here. When we walked around the arena with him on horseback, I'd sing 'W-A-L-K, walk, walk, walk, walk.' Now, he sings it himself. His verbal skills have improved in other parts of his life as well."

"If you can imagine not being able to control your legs or straighten your back and being put in a chair," said Gavin Harding of West Hempfield Township, president of the LCTR board, "And then imagine being put on a horse instead, you can begin to understand how the sense of independence and the freedom of movement is absolutely life-changing."

"It's the most amazing thing," echoes Ernest Prokay of Kinzers, whose sons Luke, 7, and Adam, 4, both have cerebral palsy. "The first time we put Luke on a horse, he was stiff as a board. By the time he came off, he was so loosened up, he was like putty!"

Adam rides the obstacle course, through a lane of carnation pots around a line of pumpkins, circling a bale of hay and riding over a series of cavaletti (ground level "jumps"). He sits up straight and glows with pride as he is handed a blue ribbon for a perfect performance.

Donna May, Lititz, 38, looks every inch the equestrienne in jodhpurs, riding helmet, jacket and boots. "I thought, oh yeah, ride a horse, that'll be a big help," she admits with a laugh of her initial response to the suggestion she try the program. "But when I'm on a horse, my back pain goes away, my balance improves, and the personality of the horse encourages me." Her fight with depression has slowly given way to smiles - and blue ribbons.

"All I can say," adds Anita Prokay, watching her son Adam, whose contact with therapeutic horsemanship has strengthened his muscles to where he can now stand, "is that when we drive past here on Sunday, on our way to church at The Worship Center, Adam looks out the window and makes clip-clop noises as we pass Greystone Manor. "He knows the horses are here. And he can hardly wait to see them again."

For more information on the riding program, call 615-9222 or email

PHOTO; Caption: Jack Leonard; Olejo Blair giddyaps during the Lancaster County Therapeutic Riding show, Saturday.

(Copyright 2004 Lancaster Newspapers)