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Riders strut their stuff at show

Disabled children who learned to ride horses at Camp Equither as therapy show their parents and friends what they have learned.

By KYLA K. WILSON

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 12, 2000


CLEARWATER -- Brittany Didden cannot be distracted while she looks for her friend, who is demonstrating his riding skills in a horse show.

"Is that Jamey?" she asks her mother. She cheers enthusiastically along with other parents as he rides by.

Jamey Watkins, 14, of Palm Harbor and Brittany, 6, of Clearwater performed in the Equither riding show yesterday in Clearwater. Equither is a camp and horse stable that serves children and adults with mental and physical disabilities. The camp uses horseback riding as physical therapy for people with disabilities. The horse show gave 24 campers a chance to show their relatives and friends what they had learned at the camp.

The therapy has been shown to help people with disabilities with their posture and coordination. Because a horse walks much like humans walk, children with disabilities who ride horses may feelthey're walking themselves. The horse also is a gentle animal that helps children with disabilities become more personable, camp organizers said.

"I have had kids take their first steps here. Many parents tell me that their children are now putting words together. It's the connection withnature and the horse," said Kim Dubendorff, 43, who runs the camp out of her Clearwater home.

Dubendorff learned of horse therapy 10 years ago while working as a physical therapist. After volunteering and working with other programs, she started her own two years ago.

"What I can do at a clinic or school is nothing compared to what I can do with a horse," Dubendorff said.

Equither has a three-week summer camp and provides riding lessons throughout the year. At camp, children also learn swimming, horse grooming and arts and crafts. Dubendorff tries to make the camp like any other. "I believe kids need to be up and doing what every other child does," Dubendorff said.

Brittany has cerebral palsy, which requires her to use a wheelchair. She has been riding horses for the last six months.

"It's like I'm in a big world when I am on the horse," she said.

Brittany's mother, Tiffany Didden, said that riding horses has improved Brittany's posture.

"It's helped her with her balance and holding up her head and even standing," Mrs. Diddensaid. "She feels more independent doing stuff."

Mrs. Didden thinks the horse show helps the children with self-esteem.

"It gives them a chance to show us something they're excited over and enjoy. They feel like their have accomplished something," she said.

Jamey, who has cerebral palsy, said he has learned to interact better at camp. He also learned quickly how to ride the horses.

"It's good learning about the horses. They're very gentle. They have a lot in common with humans," Jamey said. "I used to wiggle around, need a lot of help, but in the few months I have gotten a lot better."

Jamey's mother, Sherry Watkins, 43, has also seen improvements in her son's posture since he joined theprogram in October.

"Since he has been riding, he sits up better and he's learned better coordination," Sherry said.

Dubendorff has teen volunteers called junior counselors and a small staff that helps her. Jessica Strout, 15, of Palm Harbor enjoys volunteering at the camp. Her 11-year-old brother is autistic.

"A lot of people think these kids are real trouble (but) they are just different," Strout said. "All of them have exceptional qualities."

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