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'We use Norwegian fjords the most," says Deborah Shinner, executive director of Riding Emphasizing Individual Needs and Strengths, or REINS, an organization that offers assisted horseback riding for the disabled. "The fjords can take a lot of weight. We use them for backriding when an instructor is on the horse with a student. And because they are a little shorter in size, we use them for those children and adults that have no muscle tone and need assistance with side-walkers. Most all of our riders have a leader, someone that leads a horse after they're on, and side-walkers walking at the side of the student."

For those riders who can be "unhooked," meaning they are able to ride the obstacle courses, Thoroughbreds and quarter horses are used. "The reason is that [these horses] are a little bit bigger and have had more training put into them," says Shinner. All 20 of the horses currently at the program have been donated. "We have little ponies, as well, for children that can't sit up or walk and are trying to build muscle tone." One Arabian horse with "a lot of great training in her" is reserved for "kids who are stronger."

This program will be one of the beneficiaries of the Rotary Club of Bonsall's 12th annual North County Wine and Food Festival. Of the $34,000 raised at last year's festival, $5000 went to REINS, one of fifteen charities to benefit.

Shinner has found therapeutic horseback riding particularly helpful for autistic students. "It's been documented now that riding a horse sends 132 vibrations to the brain stem. For those autistic children that have an inability to stay focused, we confine them to the horse. Then, after walking around the ranch, having stimulated their circuit breakers, we go into the arena."

In the arena, stations are set up to help students work on balance, coordination, and range of motion. "When you have an autistic child in a therapy room, you can't even keep them in a chair -- they're bouncing off the walls and running around -- that's why a therapist tries to get them on a ball or swing for movement."

One surprising benefit of horseback riding for some students is an improvement in speech and language development. Riding a horse utilizes muscles in the core area of the body, from the neck to the waist. "In that little core area lies the diaphragm, where a lot of sound and speech comes out. We're strengthening that muscle as well," says Shinner. Both this strengthening and the focus obtained through movement contribute to improvements in speech.

"We've had every disability you can think of: blind, hearing impaired.... I have a handful of kids with Angelman syndrome [a genetic disorder], cerebral palsy, muscular sclerosis, and muscular dystrophy."

Shinner says that almost any disability can benefit from horseback riding. "Even if it's ADD or ADHD or speech delayed. It just needs to be documented by a physician as a diagnosis. Maybe we're just that little bit that they need to get jumpstarted where they can then be mainstreamed into the public school system."

Beginning students are placed on a bareback pad held in place by a surcingle, a strap fastened around the horse. "We use the bareback pad so they can feel the movement and warmth of the horse. The goal is to graduate them toward a saddle."

The type of saddle used is appropriate to the student's disability. "I might put somebody that needs more of a base in a Western saddle. It's larger, like putting them in a La-Z-Boy chair. If I want them to push themselves a little bit more and have more balance, I'll put them in an English saddle, which has shorter stirrups." More advanced riders are given a vaulting surcingle, which allows them to ride "backwards, sidesaddle, and do all those vaulting exercises."

Shinner says that every aspect, from picking out the color of a helmet to feeding or brushing the horse, can be a form of therapy. "There are children with sensory issues that wouldn't touch a carrot. But now we're taking that carrot to feed the horse, and because they're excited to feed the horse, they now touch the carrot and don't realize what they're doing."

Horseback riding can be a great equalizer. "They can't play basketball, baseball, whatever, but for my paraplegics that have no legs, you put them on a horse and they have four. You wouldn't even know they have a disability." -- Barbarella

North County Wine and Food Festival Friday, May 18 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. California Center for the Arts 340 N. Escondido Blvd. Escondido Cost: $75 Info: 800-249-2024 or www.bonsallrotary.com/events.html

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