Rewards of Riding

Rewards of Riding

Therapeutic riding and volunteerism for the perfect match for Carol Rae Hansen.

They may call her "Coach," but Carol Rae Hansen’s duties stretch far beyond the title inscribed on the Special Olympics Equestrian Program shirt she is wearing.

"This is supposed to be a vocation," she responded when asked how much time she devotes each week teaching therapeutic riding to mentally and/or physically challenged students who range in ages from 4 to 47 years.

The answer: Forty hours a week of instruction; 17 hours of animal care, including barn work, and at least three hours on the telephone or computer. You do the math! She hasn’t the time.

THERE ARE 40 students involved annually in the Equine Therapy Program in Montgomery County. "We are the official [equestrian] sponsor in Montgomery County for Special Olympics Maryland," she explained.

Now director of the therapeutic riding program, in addition to coaching, Hansen has 20 students who show an interest in showing. (Most of the 40 students, depending on their abilities, have approximately the same time astride.)

She attributes her volunteer enthusiasm to the coaches she had when growing up in Sioux Falls, S.D. "My three 4-H leaders never charged for their coaching. There were no pony clubs in the area and the only serious instruction in riding was available through the 4-H light horse program," she said.

Hansen, who has had horses since she was 14 years old, grew up in farming country where her parents and relatives owned 17 farms, "But we were the only ones who had horses," she added.

Fast forward to adulthood: Carol Rae Hansen holds a Ph.D. in Government International Affairs from Harvard and a Masters from Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies. "It all dovetails beautifully, working with animals and challenged riders, in the sense I studied frustration and aggression, and how best to break the link, in animals as well as in humans. We use many of the same tools and methods," she said. She is certified as a therapeutic riding instructor by the North American Riding for the Handicap Association (NARHA).

On their eight-acre property in Poolesville, Carol, her husband, Andrew Gilmour, and their daughter Grace, a student at Norwood School, maintain four ponies of various sizes, a passel of cats and two dogs.

They also provide all of the necessary equipment for the students including the proper attire, tack and trailers for transporting the ponies.


<bt>Each time a student enters the schooling ring there is at least one qualified volunteer aide on duty. Hansen estimates she has at least 40 volunteers. "I have already had calls from Paris. A volunteer in the health field wants to help out for a month this summer. For next year, two occupational therapists from Florida and a speech pathologist from Massachusetts have also called and will be here," she related. Of the 40 volunteers, only six are men.

Ilka Jensen, an au pair working in Potomac, has been a regular since coming here a year ago from Flensburg, Germany, where she and her father are avid riders. Jensen helps with instruction, does barn chores and schools "Mr. Norfolk," a large Morgan pony. She will return to Germany this fall and attend university.

Volunteerism is well and thriving in the equestrian Special Olympics program. When students are showing, unless they are independent riders, each entry has a head walker, and two side walkers. Head walkers have a lead line attached to a halter that has been put on the horse’s head over the bridle. This enables the rider to guide with the reins, but offers additional safety.

Side walkers each put an arm across the knee of the rider. "If the student is in a trotting class, the side walkers have to be in really good shape to run along beside the horse and rider," Hansen explained. That is why she chooses to use ponies. "The horse’s height makes it uncomfortable for the side walker to hold an arm up that high for such a long time," she said.

Out of all the students Hansen has, about 20 have opted for showing. Each week, most students, depending on their age and ability, have at least 90 minutes of lesson time. Volunteers are essential and there is always room for more.


<bt>Training doesn’t stop with students. The coach describes a near-disaster when she bought "Battersea Norfolk," (a.k.a. "Mr. Norfolk"). "He came to us a victim of abuse. Every time we saw him, [prior to his arrival] he was cool, calm and collected, and passed a 100 point check list [for therapeutic riding]," she said.

"When we got him home he went berserk. I had three weeks to turn him from a raving maniac into a safe animal," she recalled. It was during this training she used the behavioral psychology in animal research she had studied at Harvard. It obviously worked. "Mr. Norfolk" won the American Morgan Horse Association’s Therapeutic Horse of the Year Award in 2005.

Hanson’s interest has long been in showing horses. The intense training of her students paid off beautifully for her when, out of the 11 qualified riders for two days of recent showing

at the Prince George's County Equestrian Center, five entered the competition. Representing the Montgomery County Special Olympic Equestrian Team, they brought home a host of ribbons and medals from both shows — the Maryland Council of Equestrian Therapies 6th annual trials and the Maryland Special Olympics Equestrian show.

Hansen, who has been coaching the team for two years, feels adamant that horse showing "is the most important reinforcement for working hard in the therapy program." With a litany of positives, she continued, "It motivates [the students] to do their exercises, do their homework, come out in all types of weather and to stay on their medications and behavioral programs. If they don’t have the excitement of showing, they might not be inclined to do all of that," she concluded. She emphasized sportsmanship as the main criteria.

THREE ENTRIES, Duncan Groff, 12, a student at the Katherine Thomas School; an adult rider, Janice Allen; and Elizabeth Kent won gold medals during the two days of showing, qualifying them for eligibility at the world games in the Beijing Olympics. Allen, who is on the Montgomery County team, was coached by the director of the Carroll County 4-H riding program, Mary Shunk.

Kent, 18, of Potomac, is a senior at The Lab School, Washington. Both she and Allen are individual riders. Kent, who won a gold medal and ribbons in prix caprilli (dressage and jumping) at the show is also nominated for the 2007 North American Riding For The Handicap Association’s Independent Equestrian of the Year Award. "I think she will get it," Hansen surmised. "She is a terrific inspiration for the younger students, and a perfect example of a young person who, with hard work, has transformed herself from falling into her side walker’s arms to riding independently. She now qualifies for the Olympic world games," Hensen marveled.

In addition to Allen, Kent and Goff, Karina Wichman, formerly of Potomac, and 5-year-old Timmy Dexter amassed a total of 21 ribbons plus four gold, two silver and four bronze medals throughout two days of competing with 10 other special Olympic teams in the Maryland region.

The gold-medal winners — Kent, Allen and Goff — will soon learn who goes to Beijing. "If they go, I am going," Hansen promised.

There are 20 names in the hat, each representing a gold medal winner from the Washington-Metropolitan area. One male and one female name will be drawn. Those who are selected must also adhere to international rules, such as being able to carry their own luggage, order from a menu and room by themselves. "We will have to know soon who is chosen. It will take a year of intensive riding instruction to prepare them," Hansen said.

In spite of the impressive number of ribbons and medals the Montgomery County team won, Hansen, and her husband Andrew Gilmour agreed that the most gratifying moment was when they saw young Dexter draped over the pony‘s neck. The judge approached and asked the weary youngster, "Do you love Mr. Doowop?" The little boy, who is non-verbal, straightened up in the saddle immediately and gave a big smile, but sank over again. "Do you like to ride?" the judge then asked. Again, Timmy popped up with another incredible smile.

"He doesn’t speak, but he clearly understood. It was such a thrill for him to be there. Andy and I both had tears in our eyes," Hansen admitted.

"It was the shining moment of the weekend," she concluded.