"Go!" says the little girl, and the sturdy brown pony obeys, stepping slowly around an indoor arena. It is the simplest of commands, yet it represents an enormous achievement for 8-year-old Stormie Sanders. While pregnant with Stormie, her mother was pinned under a furnace by a tornado, resulting in a difficult delivery that caused bleeding in the baby's brain. As a consequence, Stormie cannot see well, cannot walk and, until she began horseback riding a few months ago, could not speak. Now she can say one word clearly: "Go!"
Stormie's is a shared triumph. She is one of more than 250 severely disabled children enrolled free of charge in the decade-old Marianna Greene Henry Special Equestrians Program in Talladega, Ala. Employing a technique called hippotherapy, inspired by polio victim Liz Hartel, who went on to become a 1952 Olympic medalist in dressage, instructors use horses to help build students' communication and interactive skills as well as their general physical fitness. "The horses are such a motivator," says head teacher Donelle Proctor. "And the lessons carry over into the classroom—ability to follow directions, increased self-confidence, plus physical strength, posture, coordination."
By any measure the Talladega program is the great success that Marianna Henry envisioned it could be. Yet, tragically, she never saw the school she urged her parents to open on their family farm, having died at 31 before her dream could be realized. Soon after Marianna's death, Pat and Marilyn Greene, both now 69, founded the program in her memory. "We just looked at each other," recalls Marilyn, "and said, 'She really wanted this.' "
They started modestly, building a wheelchair ramp to the paddock next to their home and allowing children at the nearby Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind to borrow their horses. But the Greenes were so pleased with the results and became so attached to the children that they quickly expanded. Now the program boasts one of the best-equipped facilities of its kind, with a wheelchair-accessible indoor arena, three barns, a tack room, four staffers fluent in sign language, a dozen volunteers, a cat named Alfalfa and 13 gentle horses. "It's an absolutely wonderful place. Their mission and their goals are unique," says Bill Scebbi, executive director of the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association, which oversees some 670 such programs nationwide.
Marianna's dream had its roots in her childhood. The third of five children, she started riding as a little girl, finally persuading her father, a Bell South executive, to buy her a horse when she was 14. "Those were good years," he says. Two years later she volunteered to help her older brother Michael, then studying for the priesthood, at a summer camp for the children of migrant workers. Caring for those children, especially the disabled, became a second passion for her. "It was amazing to see Marianna being so affectionate to these children," recalls Pat. "Back then, it was uncomfortable for me."
Marianna went on to study special education at the University of North Alabama with the goal of making it her life's work. But those plans were put on hold when she met fellow student Jim Henry, now 42. They married in 1979, Jim went to work for the phone company, and she gave birth to their first child, Camille. Even as a busy young mother, Marianna resumed her training, returning to school and trying her hand at student teaching.
She first learned about hippotherapy when a pilot program near her home in Birmingham advertised for an educator who knew something about horses. Marianna began volunteering in 1984, when she was pregnant with her second child, Natalie. Amazed by her students' progress, she urged her parents to establish a small hippotherapy school on their property outside Talladega, not far from the Institute for Deaf and Blind. The Institute is renowned as one of the most comprehensive facilities in the U.S. for the sensory-impaired, with residential quarters for 1,000 children and separate schools for the deaf and the blind. Children with multiple handicaps, like Stormie, are also served by the Institute's Helen Keller School, named for the celebrated Alabama native. "You've got to get this thing started," Marianna told her parents. "You have all these handicapped people right down the road."
But one day in 1989, before her parents could act, Marianna came home from the grocery store and fainted. Diagnosed with cardiomyopathy—an enlarged heart that gradually atrophies—her only hope was a transplant. But her heart failed before another became available, and she died in March of 1989 as surgeons tried to implant a temporary artificial heart. Natalie was particularly bereft, says Marilyn: "She would say, 'I wish I could die and be with my mother.' "
Within months the Greenes took up Marianna's challenge, building the wheelchair ramp in their yard. The following year they registered their program as a nonprofit organization, donated a 10-acre parcel of their land and began raising funds. "It just mushroomed," says Marilyn. Tim Greene, 38, Marianna's younger brother, manages the program's day-to-day operation and auditions horses to make sure they are gentle enough for the children. "Some may act up with an adult on their backs," says Tim. "But you put a child on, they're perfect."
Staffers maintain that hippotherapy offers several benefits that more traditional therapy lacks. Cerebral palsy, for instance, tends to make leg muscles twist inward, while riding corrects that to some extent, so that children are better able to walk. Says Stormie's father, Gene Sanders: "We used to hold her up, and she'd fall back down. Now she can stand on her own." And for many children, doing the necessary physical therapy on a mat is a chore, but touching toes or doing sit-ups while astride a horse can be fun. "We have kids with as many as five disabilities," says Institute president Joe Busta, "and there are therapeutic benefits—the way the gait of the horse moves the body, the muscles and the spine—that you just can't duplicate on a mat." Students also ride along outdoor trails seeded with various kinds of sensory stimulation—for instance, plants chosen for their scent or color, and trail surfaces that sound and feel different. For the blind, many of whom have to be taught to lift their heads, riding improves posture; for the deaf, many of whom have middle-ear problems, it helps with balance.
The success of the program had also helped ease the Greenes' sense of loss after Marianna's death. But the family was tested again when Marianna's daughter Natalie was diagnosed with the same heart problem that had claimed her mother. She began to have trouble breathing and had to curtail her activities. "She hated it," says her sister Camille, 19. "She had to give up basketball, bicycling, dance." And chocolate, which she loved, because of the caffeine.
She, too, needed a heart transplant, but last September, when she began to fail, no organs were available. On the operating table to receive an artificial heart, Natalie suffered a fatal stroke. On Nov. 20, for what would have been her 16th birthday, her grandparents ate chocolate cake in her memory. "Natalie was an unusual little girl—like a saint," says Pat. Adds Marilyn: "There are times I just sit and weep. When you lose somebody close to you, you can either go under or snap out of it. Stay busy, and that helps."
The Greenes have joined former son-in-law Jim, now remarried, in campaigning for the Alabama Organ Transplant Center. (Three people are alive today thanks to Natalie's donated kidneys and liver.) Both also work for their Catholic church, Marilyn arranging flowers and Pat sitting on the parish council. And they are raising an endowment to pay the operating costs of the riding program. For it isn't only the riders who find the program therapeutic. Every Tuesday, Marilyn and Pat volunteer to help with the children. They have watched students learn to clap hands, toss a ball through a hoop and even win ribbons in competitions with other handicapped riders. "It wasn't until I started working with these children that I saw what Marianna saw in them," says Marilyn. "It saved our lives."
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