Riding to stable pastures

A program for disabled children is moving to a permanent home.

Published May 18, 2007

SEMINOLE - Clearing has begun at a county park to make way for a horseback riding program that caters to the disabled.

When the facility at Walsingham Horseman's Park is finished, it will provide a place to permanently stable some of the horses used in the program. The new facility also may allow the 27-year-old program to expand, said Bob Maus, president of the Kiwanis Horses for Handicapped Foundation of Pinellas County Inc. The foundation is sponsored by the seven Kiwanis clubs in south Pinellas.

The Horses for Handicapped Program, also known as the Rough Riders, has been using the riding ring at the Seminole Technical Education Center. But the horses cannot stay there and must be transported to the site every Saturday from September through May.

Having permanent stabling at the new center will mean greater safety for the horses because they will not need to travel as frequently. It also will allow the Kiwanis to offer the program during the week, which will open it to more adults. The program, which now serves about 40 riders from as far away as Pasco County, often has a waiting list.

The idea behind the program takes a cue from the words of Winston Churchill: "There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man."

The truth of that is something Lisa Panish discovered from the changes in her 4-year-old twins, Chase and Connor Wilson, who have cerebral palsy.

Her sons began the program by petting and brushing the horses, then graduated to riding.

"They've gotten much more secure, " Panish said. "Their trunk control is much better."

The lessons are about 45 minutes long, depending on the child's strength and ability. During the lessons the horses, which are chosen for their calm nature, are accompanied by volunteers from such organizations as the Girl Scouts. They help make sure the horses make no sudden moves.

The riders are given exercises to perform while the horses are standing and moving. One such exercise is for the rider to twist around to touch the top of the horse's tail. Another has the rider lying down on the horse's back. Yet another has the rider sitting on top of the horse with crossed legs.

"It's a confidence builder. It's a strength builder, " said Jenny Mazgaj.

Mazgaj's twin daughters, Nina and Katie, 10, suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder because of the two years they spent in a Bulgarian orphanage as infants.

When the twins began the program, they would not walk past the adjacent pasture because they were afraid of the cows inside.

Now that they're riding, they've fallen in love with the horses and demand their mother drive them by even when the program is not in session.