Therapeutic riding center aids those with special needs

Photo of Erin Kayata

DARIEN — When Talbot Clarke was a sophomore at Santa Clara University in California, she got hit by a car and and was thrown 30 feet. The then 20-year-old suffered a traumatic brain injury and had to relearn how to chew, swallow, walk and talk. She was in the hospital for eight months, followed by more intermittent hospitalizations.

The now 27-year-old Darien resident still cannot drive, regularly struggles with short-term memory problems and suffers from brain fatigue. But Clarke has regained many of her abilities, including her horseback-riding skills, which she employs during weekly riding lessons at Pegasus Therapeutic Riding.

“It’s great to go back and do something I enjoyed pre-injury and with the same excitement,” Clarke said.

A nonprofit organization which began at Ox Ridge Hunt Club in Darien, Pegasus Therapeutic Riding has since relocated about 45 minutes away in Brewster, N.Y., but still offers therapeutic horseback riding and unmounted equine-assisted activities to people with special needs.

“The field of services we provide is called equine-assisted activities and therapies,” said Pegasus’ Communications Director Christine Fitzgerald. “We partner a trained therapeutic horse with a person.... We have therapeutic riding and unmounted horsemanship activities. The population we serve is people with special needs ages 4 and up.”

According to Fitzgerald, Pegasus serves riders with physical, cognitive, developmental and emotional challenges. Fitzgerald said many of the participants are on the autism spectrum, while others may have diagnoses of multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome or traumatic brain injuries. Others have developmental delays or sensory challenges.

Riders in the program take group lessons of three to four riders of the same developmental ability and age range. The riders usually spend an hour-long lesson each week at the barn, riding trails or practicing riding skills with their horses.

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For Clarke, who started her riding career at Ox Ridge, her return to horseback riding a year after her injury was a way to return to her old self. Despite her severe injuries, when she got back on a horse in 2012, her body seemed to remember how to do her old favorite sport. She now is now able to ride independently after initially needing the assistance of three trained volunteers.

“We wouldn’t let her ride with anyone else,” said Clarke’s mother, Mauri. “They’re very knowledgeable. It’s incredible to see...her muscle memory and skills are still there, but (the injury) challenges her memory.”

The riding helps with Clarke’s coordination and recollection skills as she memorizes obstacle

courses. It also helps her regain her physical strength.

“I said I wanted to go back on a horse and do my favorite sport,” she said. “And the place that would let me do that was Pegasus. They were truly phenomenal.”

Clarke recently showed off her reacquired riding skills at the 35th annual Pegasus Horse Show on May 20. Cheered on by staff, volunteers, family and friends, Clarke earned her therapeutic riding class’ best control of the horse award.

New Canaan resident Kelly Ritz also participated in the annual show that highlighted the equestrian achievements of more than 60 children and adults with special needs. Held each year, the show highlights the riders’ achievements and every rider receives an award. This year, Ritz received the class’ best half seat award, recognizing her ability to rise out of the saddle and remain flexed while riding, something which also helps improve riders’s physical strength.

“We did trotting and posting,” the 21-year-old New Canaan rider said.

Part of Ritz’s success comes from her relationship with her horse, Duke. Pegasus intentionally chooses its horses based on their temperament.

“The therapeutic benefits are just some of the aspects,” said Kelly Ritz’s father, Jon. “It’s the setting. The horses enjoy the companionship. The horse has a good sense of what skill level the rider has and will push them. It pushes the kids to have better control of the horse.”

“Setting up and controlling the horse gives the kids a real feeling of accomplishment,” Jon Ritz added.

Kelly’s mother, Beth, also agreed the horse riding has been beneficial for her daughter.

“She has a lot of confidence,” Beth Ritz said. “I think it’s soothing, being with the horse.”

“Sometimes it’s frustrating,” she added. “But it’s routine. Kelly’s one that likes routine.”

The programs also bring a sense of stability to its riders.

Westport resident Allyson Schroeder, 29, began horseback riding when she was 6 years old and has been riding with Pegasus since 2011. In addition to riding, the animal lover also does barn training, where she learns to care for her horse, Sherman.

“I like it because it’s beautiful,” Allyson Schroeder said.

Her mother, Janet, said the program helps with her daughter’s disabilities.

“It helps to stimulate and build social skills,” Janet Schroeder said. “The program is therapeutic, so it stimulates motor skills. It gives comfort and security.”; @erin_kayata