Bethany Pittman goes through her exercises with her dad Mark. Carol Pastore and volunteers help to make sure she is safe.

by Rob Santoro, printed in the Valley Courier, Sept. 28, 2011

A few months ago, little Bethany didn't talk much for her age. She was born with a developmental disability that has affected her ability to communicate, even with her own mom and dad.

Luckily for her, Carol Pastore and the members of Bridges of Health Inc.'s Challenge Colorado Therapeutic Riding Program (CCTRP) have been able to work with Bethany and give her the skills needed to improve her communication.

CCTRP is a Monte Vista based nonprofit that is gearing up to celebrate their 10th anniversary.

Carol Pastore, a certified speech pathologist, decided to start the program when she and her daughter, Milena, visited a similar program in Santa Fe in 2001. After seeing the great work being done and all of the smiling faces, Milena simply asked, "Why can't we do this where we live?"

Participants at CCTRP are generally 3-5 years old and suffer from Autism, Cerebral Palsy, learning disabilities or social emotional concerns. Carol, who has a speech therapy background and is certified with the American Hippotherapy Association, combines both traditional techniques and the use of horses in her therapy sessions. Put simply, she uses the horse as a tool in her therapy. Carol, along with a handful of volunteers, conducts strict but fun training sessions. Children who are working on social skills usually enter the arena remembering to be polite and say please and thank you.

Mental and Physical Preparation for Riding

Remembering appropriate social skills determines whether or not they will ride that day. Those children who have extra energy are encouraged to jump on a mini trampoline to prepare themselves both mentally and physically before mounting one of the superbly trained horses. Once astride the horse, the child remains quiet unless he or she is answering a question or "having a feeling ."

New participants to the program quickly learn that following the rules comes with great rewards. The group of five, which includes a horse, rider, horse leader, and two side walkers, slowly maneuver around the arena working on activities. The goal is to strengthen the rider's core/trunk area.

While in motion, the rider is encouraged to gently cross their midline as they hang different colored rings on t-posts or toss a ball into a basketball hoop. Outside, the team takes the child through sensory stations which may include hanging (pool) noodles that are reminiscent of going through a carwash or placing colorful balls into tubes and watching them as they fall into corresponding buckets. These exercises allow the children to work on sensory issues and truly "feel" the experience. The children oftentimes do not realize they are doing therapy, they just think they are playing fun games on horseback.

CCTRP's History of Success

Carol has worked with hundreds of children over the past 10 years. In the beginning, the children just brushed the horses at her ranch. Then she expanded the sessions to include riding at the Ski Hi Park Recreational Facility. However, she found that riding at Ski Hi was very time consuming due to the added time needed to transport the horses and set up and tear down equipment.

CCTRP really hit its stride in 2007 when they were able to build an onsite indoor horse arena. Bitter sweetly, the funding for the endeavor came when Carol's sister, Diane Alire, unexpectedly passed away. Diane was a strong advocate for therapeutic riding and assisted by scheduling special needs children for hippotherapy and therapeutic riding for Boulder Valley Schools. Four years later, the therapeutic riding program continues with the help of friends and neighbors. Special recognition goes to two young ladies from Adams State College who donated countless hours to CCTRP. Honor students, Melissa Haupt and Lindsay Ulschmid often spend their Wednesdays evenings and Saturday mornings assisting at the Monte Vista nonprofit.

Originally, they sought out the volunteer opportunities to supplement their coursework, HPPE (Human Performance and Physical Education) and pre-veterinary science, but they stayed for the children . Lindsay's face lights up when she explains the good feeling she gets when helping at CCTRP, "The kids help you look at life differently." Melissa gets a similar look in her eye when she talks about her experiences. "I love seeing the progress the kids make. It is hard work, but it is definitely fun" she beams.

A Smile on Bethany's Face

After several months of therapy, little Bethany's vocabulary has improved greatly. Thanks to the consistency of the program, she has continued to make progress. At first she used sign language to express her thoughts to her family but now she is able to smile and tell her parents "I love you."

Those who would like to make a difference in child's life, whether it be as a volunteer working directly with the children or by making a donation to CCTRP, please explore their website (www.challengecolorado. org) or call Carol Pastore at 852-2795.

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