Northwest NEWS

September 4, 2000

Front Page

Little Bit Ride 2000 supports a unique program

* Becky Nixon/staff photo
   (l-r) Volunteer Bebe Baker, Mikel Luster, Margie Baratto, volunteer.
   by Bronwyn Wilson
   Senior Staff Reporter
   With kind, soulful eyes and sleek, glistening coats, the horses wait motionless as their riders dismount. Gentleness and patience are part of their job description. The horses realize many of their riders need assistance to get on and off, as well as assistance in and out of wheelchairs. They're in no hurry.
   At the Little Bit Therapeutic Riding Center in Woodinville, the patient horses are known as the four-legged therapists.
   Their names are Bucky, Bjorn, Desi, Scotchie and Prince, to name a few. There are fourteen of them in all and many are getting on in years.
   Actually, their average age is 23 and for horses this is considered the 'golden' years, but at Little Bit the age of the horses is perfect.
   According to Executive Director, Kathy Alm, older horses have a tendency to spook less and have been through more.
   These are the exact qualifications for horses who work with children and adults with disabilities. Older horses are best suited to help children and adults overcome their limitations as they learn to ride a horse.
   The four-legged therapists establish trust through the bond of human-animal relationships and they awaken touch, smell, sound and sight.
   To support this unique approach to therapy, a public ride-a-thon called Little Bit Ride 2000, will be held Sept. 9.
   The Little Bit Therapeutic Riding Center, a non-profit organization, is supported through individual contributions, grants, tuition and special events, such as the ride-a-thon.
   Nancy Luster and Cindy Nakahara are co-chairs to the fund raising effort. "We're planning to make a really fun event," Luster said.
   Anyone who wishes to participate in the event can do so by asking for pledges from family, friends and co-workers and then walk, bike or horseback ride the beautiful Tolt Pipeline to the trails of the Redmond Watershed and Farrell McWhirter Park.
   There will be checkpoints along the way with movie set designs in western themes.
   Volunteers will be outfitted in cowboy costumes, and there will be cool water to refresh the horses.
   At the saloon or the Alamo check points or at any of the others, participants will be asked questions and when answered correctly, they'll be handed Little Bit Bucks which can be spent at the General Store set up inside the Little Bit arena. Also included in the day's activities are a continental breakfast, an afternoon barbecue and plenty of prizes.
   For Nancy Luster the ride-a-thon has a personal meaning. Her son, Mikel, is thirteen years old and has congenital hydrocephalus.
   Seven years ago, orthopedic surgeons suggested horseback riding as a way for Mikel to avoid surgery. At that time, Mikel was unable to sit independently and had tightness in his legs.
   Luster, brought him to Little Bit and soon after noticed significant improvement in Mikel, not only in his trunk control but also in his joy of life.
   "Mikel loves horseback riding," Luster said. "It gives him a lot of independence."
   For Mikel and all the other riders, the Little Bit program offers a sense of achievement that comes from riding and maneuvering a 1,100 pound horse.
   It also offers a sense of freedom and an opportunity to feel like everybody else. Nancy Luster pointed out that from Mikel's view in his wheelchair, it is difficult to even see over railing.
   But up on a horse, the world takes on a whole new perspective; he can see what it looks like from above. Luster also said the program helped Mikel to improve social skills as the program requires interaction with others.
   And this is exactly what the program sets out to accomplish.
   "Our mission is to improve the bodies, mind and spirits of people with disabilities. Here, we focus on people's abilities, not disabilities," said Alm.
   Founded in 1976, Little Bit Therapeutic Riding Center was started by a woman who had multiple sclerosis and decided to have a therapeutic horseback riding program as a means of inhibiting the progress of her disease.
   Today, the program has grown from five students, one horse and an instructor to more than 130 students a week, 180 volunteers and a dedicated staff which includes eight instructors.
   Through therapeutic horseback riding, the riders receive healthy exercise which brings about improved circulation and muscle tone.
   The riding also builds coordination and balance while strengthening dormant and failing muscles. Hippotherapy, which is one-on-one work with a physical therapist and uses the horse as a tool for the therapy, is available to riders and is a tremendous benefit.
   According to Kathy Alm, emotional healing is also a factor in the program. Children who have stopped speaking after witnessing something traumatic start talking again after participating in the program.
   She also said that riders from the Ryther Child Center who had suffered child abuse and were always in trouble as a result, showed a huge change in attitude after receiving horseback riding therapy at Little Bit.
   And many of Little Bit's riders, she added, continue with the program through childhood on to their adult years.
   "We have a number who have been riding with us for ten to seventeen years. We have one who has been riding with us for twenty years," Alm said.
   More volunteers are needed and Alm explained that previous horse experience isn't required, though it's helpful. However, she said that volunteers need to be willing to attend a three hour training program and to not have a fear of horses.
   Also needed are more volunteers and participants in the Ride 2000 event.
   For pledge sheets, details, prize rules or to register, call 425-882-1554. Riders under 18 must have a signed parent consent form.