In an indoor riding ring in Warwick, N.Y., Owen Smith, a horse bred for speed and fire, stands patiently awaiting his disabled rider. Eight-year-old Mary Beth Clerico is helped onto his back and the horse begins walking slowly around the ring. A grandson of Damascus and great-grandson of Sword Dancer, Owen Smith is one of 15 horses who provide therapy for children and adults at Winslow Therapeutic Riding Unlimited, a program for the disabled founded by horsewoman Virginia Martin.
People with spinal or central nervous system disorders, regardless of the cause, benefit greatly from hippotherapy, the use of a horse as a therapeutic tool. Physically, a rider benefits because his or her pelvis is gently forced back and forth by the horse's movement, loosening and strengthening the muscles in a manner otherwise impossible for a patient who can't walk or who has difficulty walking. In addition, the Winslow horses are used for "remedial vaulting," in which mentally disabled or emotionally disturbed riders gain confidence and independence through riding. Says Andrea Clerico, mother of Mary Beth, a multihandicapped child: "The riding program has brought her out of her shell and given her a sense of being in control." The riders in the remedial program work in groups to encourage cooperation. Sharisa Kochmeister, 9, diagnosed as an autistic child, was totally withdrawn before she started the program at Winslow. Now, after four years of riding, she squeals with glee when her white horse, Lord Byron, is brought into the arena; she also now communicates with her therapist and family. Riding has given her a better sense of herself. "Riding has made her more social and aware of her surroundings," says Sharisa's father, Jan, a special education teacher. "She had been uncooperative. She is now much more friendly, outgoing and cooperative." Mary Beth has a problem with balance and is developmentally delayed, but when she lies down on Owen Smith's warm, moving back, the girl's senses are bombarded with stimuli. When Mary Beth stands up on the back of the docile animal, or rides around the arena in a "bear stand," she shows amazing coordination and balance.
Owen Smith himself has triumphed over physical disability. When he was foaled in May 1979, his owner was so impressed with the little colt that he gave the horse his own middle name and surname. Gene Owen Smith eventually wrote a book about Owen, The Champion, published last year.
Among the facts noted in The Champion is that Owen's great-grandfather, Sword Dancer, finished second in the 1959 Kentucky Derby and first in the Belmont Stakes with Bill Shoemaker in the irons. The Shoe was also up on Owen's grandfather, Damascus, for all three 1967 Triple Crown races, winning both the Preakness and Belmont, and finishing third in the Derby. But Owen Smith was never to see a racetrack. While still a yearling, he cast himself in his stall, caught his rear legs between two wall boards and ripped them to the bone trying to work himself free. No one thought Owen would live, but Gene and his wife, Jayne Smith, refused to give up on the horse. Every day for eight months they worked on him, hosing down his wounds for an hour, applying salves and ointments, changing his bandages. Throughout his ordeal, the horse remained stoic and compliant. After Owen Smith was declared recovered—straight-legged and without even a limp—he accepted riders as easily as he had borne everything else in his life. But Owen would never be ridden by a jockey; his legs weren't strong enough to withstand the demands of racing. Alternative careers for thoroughbreds are few and far between, however. Were it not for the devotion of the Smiths, Owen Smith's story might have ended early. The couple sent him to be schooled in hippotherapy and gave the horse a second chance at becoming a winner.
Martin, impressed by Owen's gentle nature, took the thoroughbred into her program. The once disabled horse now spends his days helping disabled riders. Though he has never won a Triple Crown race, he has lived up to his noble heritage.
Daphne Hurford is a free-lance writer who lives in New York City.