“Get me out of this arena – I want to go out on the trail because this horse is my legs!”

So exclaimed one of the students at Hearts Adaptive Riding Center, a non-profit program with the mission of “providing empowering, educational and enjoyable therapeutic horseback riding to physically and mentally disabled children and adults in the Santa Barbara area.”

The riders at Hearts may seem an unlikely bunch, suffering from such wide-ranging health issues as autism, brain injuries, cancer, cerebral palsy, developmental delay, Down Syndrome, fibromyalgia, learning disabilities, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injuries and stroke.

And yet, executive director Connie Weinsoff says, “Sometimes it’s hard to remember a person’s disability. I’m more concerned about their skill level.”

Such positive thinking is embodied in Hearts’ slogan, “Focused on Abilities.”

“Sometimes parents put limits on their child because they are so used to what people tell them they can’t do,” Weinsoff says.

In at least three instances, parents reported that their child was non-verbal, but then they witnessed their kid talk to a horse. Increased communication is one of the positive byproducts of therapy that is enjoyed in the outdoors rather than the sterile confines of a hospital or doctor’s office.

A French physician identified horseback riding as valuable physical and psychological therapy as early as 1875. The physical benefits are myriad, and include improved balance, strengthened muscles, more refined motor skills and better stretching abilities.

Gus Albertsen, 14, has been riding weekly at Hearts for the last six years. Weinsoff says, “Gus has cerebral palsy and is in a wheelchair. He has spasticity in his legs and weak trunk muscles. When he first came to Hearts at age eight he had never sat up unassisted in a chair. After riding once a week for three months he sat up for the very first time on Mother’s Day.”

Perhaps of even greater importance are the psychological and emotional benefits, wherein the riders gain a sense of accomplishment, confidence, self-esteem and increased sociability.

At Hearts, students are taught social protocol along with horseback riding. When a lesson ends, each is responsible for putting away his own helmet. They are required to thank the horse they have just ridden and their volunteer helpers. For those who are severely disabled, this is accomplished by the instructor placing her hands over the student’s, then guiding them in stroking the horse and shaking hands with their helpers.

The Hearts facility has been located atop a former County dump for the last 12 years. While the lease has recently been renewed for another five years, the organization must operate out of trailer offices, as no buildings with permanent foundations may be placed atop the landfill. “It’s a great use of the land,” Weinsoff muses. “It benefits the community, and we take good care of it.”

The good stewardship of the facility was a factor in last July’s re-accreditation process, which Hearts must undergo every five years to maintain its rating with the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association. The administrative practices are also a factor, but Hearts was again certified as a “Premier Level Center” for another five years. Hearts is the only program between Santa Barbara county and the San Francisco Bay Area to enjoy this high rating.

The small part-time staff of eight is heavily dependent on volunteers to keep the program running. Nancy Rubino serves as part-time community relations coordinator. Rubino once spent a week of her vacation time as a volunteer at Hearts, and says she could never tear herself away from the place. Karen Wheeler serves as barn manager, with two helpers who assist with feeding and corral cleaning.

In addition to Weinsoff, Hearts has three other certified therapeutic riding instructors, including Rouven Krauer, a Swiss native who is a former circus trick rider. Robbie Elconin is particularly talented at creating educational games for the students to play on horseback. Her “American Dice Derby” was recently awarded Best Game in the Western Region, which includes California, Hawaii and Nevada. Anne Swan, who was the Head Instructor at Hearts from 1991 to 1998, has recently returned to the facility.

One of the highlights of the year is the annual horse show held each May. Whole families come out to watch, and grandparents even fly in from distant locales. But this is different from other events such as the Special Olympics, where every participant is given an award regardless of his performance. While every entrant in the Hearts horse show does receive a ribbon, it is truly competitive.

“This gives the students an opportunity to show off,” Weinsoff relates. “Yes, there are some who would rather have the blue ribbon than the pink simply because they like the color better. But we let it be competitive because there are very few venues for them to be competitive.”

For children who watch their able-bodied siblings play soccer, little league or musical instruments, this is their moment to shine.

The 26-acre Hearts facility has easements on adjoining trails, which allow students of varying abilities to experience three options. The short loop is about five minutes, but the middle loop takes about 20 minutes, and the long loop provides 40 minutes of trail riding.

In the ring, riders learn skills such as standing up in the saddle while stepping over a pole on the ground, which translates to crossing a rock on the trail. The instructors prefer to end every lesson with a trail ride, which gives about 85% of the students an opportunity to see bunny rabbits and flowers in a natural setting. It also helps the riders relax, as they are not on display. “Sometimes we sing, just to make it different than the arena,” Weinsoff says.

There are seven full-time horses used in the Hearts program, and each is specially suited for the task. This work is mentally demanding on a horse, due to conflicting cues given by riders of varying abilities. Unbalanced riders put strains on them in different ways.

Says instructor Elconin, “Although our volunteers are our program, we don’t have a program without the horses.”

Mark Your Calendar

Saturday, September 30

“Denim and Diamonds Gala”

1 pm to 4 pm

Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club

Benefit for Hearts Adaptive Riding Center. Buffet lunch, live music, therapeutic riding demonstration, martini bar, silent and live auctions. Tickets $100 each. For information call 964-1519, or visit www.heartsdenimanddiamonds.homestead.com. For information about Hearts, visit www.heartsadaptiveriding.org.