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'Riding is a great equalizer,' a teacher says

A Horses and the Handicapped rider has become an instructor for a program that builds confidence.

By JULIANNE WU

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 12, 2001


A Horses and the Handicapped rider has become an instructor for a program that builds confidence.

SEMINOLE -- At 5, Leah Maus was the first rider with the Horses and the Handicapped program in Seminole.

That was 20 years ago.

Now 24, Maus is a certified riding instructor with the program established by Gene and Pat Harris, of Largo, through the Kiwanis Club of Seminole. She works with two other riding instructors, Mary Urquhart and Marilyn Hunter, in the program that is also supported by seven other south Pinellas Kiwanis clubs.

Born with cerebral palsy and considered a spastic diplegic -- that is, her legs don't work properly -- Maus is a child life specialist at Tampa Children's Hospital.

"Not only does the Horses and the Handicapped program give riders the therapy they need," said Maus, of St. Petersburg, "but it helps volunteers learn about themselves.

"Many of the younger ones go on to work in service fields such as firemen, psychologists, pharmacists and even as veterinarians."

Last week, Maus helped volunteers learn the fundamentals so they can begin helping physically and mentally disabled youngsters this Saturday. The sessions for about 40 disabled riders, called the Kiwanis Rough Riders, run from 9 a.m. to noon every Saturday during the school year at the Seminole Vocational Education Center.

One person leads the horse and two walk beside it to ensure that the child doesn't fall off.

"Keep an elephant's distance between horses," she shouted to volunteers as they walked around the paddock last week.

The 40 volunteers for the program come from the eight Kiwanis clubs in District 13, the Seminole and Largo High School Key clubs, Admiral Farragut Academy and Northeast High School in St. Petersburg, Seminole Vocational Education Center, and the Seminole Riders, a combined 4-H and Girl Scout troop (675 and 711). Urquhart is the leader and Maus, the co-leader, of the combined 4-H and Girl Scout troop.

A 1994 Seminole High School graduate, Maus received a degree in family and child sciences from Florida State University in 1998. She also interned at St. Louis Children's Hospital in Missouri before she went to work at Tampa Children's Hospital that same year. She was certified for child life work in May 1999.

Her job at the hospital, she said, involves getting children ready for surgery and helping them afterward and during their entire hospital stay.

Maus, who does not take medication but still participates in physical therapy and exercise, said she enjoys being an instructor for Horses and the Handicapped.

"We all know the therapeutic value of riding and how it builds confidence. Riding is a great equalizer," she said. "My legs don't know they can't do some things when I'm riding a horse."

Gene Harris said of Maus: "She's the sweetest person and a real asset to this program."

After the weekly sessions, Maus and the young volunteers who help feed and groom the horses also get an opportunity to ride them.

- Information from Times files used in this report.

How to help

You can volunteer for the Horses and the Handicapped program Saturdays during the school year at the Seminole Vocational Education Center, 125th Street N and 86th Avenue. Sessions are from 9 a.m. to noon. Also, donations help with the $15,000 annual cost to maintain the 14 horses. Call Gene or Pat Harris at 539-0455.

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