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Purple reign

Echinacea (Waterford, Wisconsin USA)

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Slow and Steady

Riverside Park – Waterford, Wisconsin USA

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Hooves of joy

There’s nothing like sitting on the back of a big, beautiful animal, feeling its muscles move in rhythm as you race as one in a cloud of dust. Kirsten Pape of Waterford knows that feeling well. She’s been riding horses since she was 4 years old and started competing three years later.b73b3-horse-crystalsmiles

Now, at 10 years old, Kirsten and her horse, Slapshot, have won a number of racing honors. They competed together at the Walworth County Fair in Elkhorn, Wis., at the end of August in both the Tiny Tot (ages 10 years and under), Junior (ages 11-16) and Open classes of Walenton’s Rocking “B” Ranch Speed Show.

The two-day event consisted of flag and sand races, barrel races, pole bending, speed and action and other speed events during which horse and rider compete together against the clock. All events were timed and the fastest rider and horse won trophies and prize money.

Kirsten set a record, according to Barbara Walenton, owner of Walenton’s Rocking “B” Ranch. “Kirsten is the youngest participant to win the all-Around High Point trophy,” she said, noting that 10-year-old Kirsten outscored a 17-year-old competitor to earn the trophy.

In the Tiny Tot and Junior classes, Kirsten and Slapshot placed first in all events, setting a new personal record of 16.2 seconds in barrel racing and 25.558 seconds in pole bending.

“The best part was beating kids a lot older than me,” Kirsten said.

More recently, Kirsten earned the 2K Ranch Horse and Cattle Company (Helenville) 2008 Youth Reserve Champion title in the 18 and under Junior Class for this season.

Kirsten trains with professional barrel racer Colleen Barry of Winner Sircle Stables in Union Grove. Slapshot, a 6-year-old Appaloosa, has spent time training with Barry as well.

Girl and horse are quite the team – just like in any team or individual sport, they have a practice schedule, do warm up and conditioning exercises and have a coach to give them direction.

Kirsten’s commitment to her horse and riding carry though in the rest of her life as well. She enjoys studying math and science at Woodfield School in Waterford, and wants to go to college to be a veterinarian someday.

Along the way, Kirsten has become a champion for people who have special needs, sharing her time and love for horses with others.

Kirsten and Slapshot volunteer at Willow Creek Ranch, a therapeutic riding program for children and adults with dis-abilities that is owned by her mom, Jennifer Pape.

At Willow Creek, Kirsten leads therapy pony, Mr. Chubs, for participants ranging from ages 3 to 6 years old. Kirsten enjoys working with the children on cognitive skills, eye-hand coordination and riding skills during their 45-minute riding sessions.

Willow Creek is a member of the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA).

“It’s more than just putting a child on a horse,” Jennifer Pape said.

Therapeutic riding helps children and adults with a variety of disabilities and conditions such as Attention Deficit Disorder, Autism, Traumatic Brain Injuries, Cerebral Palsy, Muscular Dystrophy and others. The games and activities riders do on a horse help them improve motor skills, self-esteem, concentration and problem-solving abilities.

The rhythmic movement of the horse stimulates the riders’ bodies, helping improve their muscle tone, strength, balance and head and trunk control.

“Sometimes we have the kids sitting on the horse backwards,” Pape said.

Willow Creek Ranch Therapeutic Riding Center is located just east of Waterford on Highway 20. Participants range from ages 3 to 85 and have a variety of special needs.

Volunteers are always needed for the program, from horse leaders and side walkers to marketing and grant writing. The ranch currently operates on property owned by Richard Beere.

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Breaking the silence

Julia Martin shuffles into the kitchen, her hair a sleepy mass of curls with a mind of their own. She yawns and rubs her eyes – she doesn’t feel well, so she won’t be attending her classes at Evergreen Elementary School in Waterford, Wis., today.

“Good morning, Julia!” David, her dad, says with great enthusiasm.

Vicki, Julia’s mom, echoes the greeting.

Then they introduce the unfamiliar woman sitting at the kitchen table.

“This is Christine,” Vicki says. Julia’s big brown eyes look off to the side as her mom places a pencil in her hand.

Vicki holds up a purple plastic letter board with its 26 holes, each a stencil of individual letters of the alphabet.

Vicki nods to Julia, who quickly pokes the pencil into the holes.

“H-i,” Vicki says, “Keep going.”

“C-h-r-i-s.” Vicki says. “What else?”

“T-i-n-e. Hi, Christine,” Vicki says.

Julia puts down the pencil and then turns away.

“You’re tired,” Vicki says. Julia walks back toward her bedroom.

Vicki begins chatting about Julia and their family, and the TV in the bedroom gets louder, then louder still.

Vicki smiles. Like many 12-year-old girls, Julia has found a way to tune out her mom when she doesn’t want to hear her voice.

And like many girls her age, Julia enjoys spending time with friends. She likes to read. She likes boys (although she doesn’t say which ones.) She loves to wear her Sketchers. She even likes to comment on politics at times.

But unlike many girls her age, Julia cannot speak. In fact, until a couple of years ago, Julia could not effectively communicate her wants, much less her thoughts and dreams. She was locked in a silent world – and it was a frustrating place to be.

Vicki says people often assume Julia is mentally challenged, mostly because Julia cannot readily communicate. She frequently does not make eye contact, and her body movements are often not in synch with what Julia is trying to do at a given time, even something as simple as sitting in class.

Julia’s world opened up when she learned to communicate with the Rapid Prompting Method (RPM), which involves using the letter board and may eventually involve use of a keyboard and computer.

Vicki spoke before the Wisconsin Department of Health and Family Services Autism Council on April 2, 2008, sharing Julia’s experiences:

“It blew me away when I realized how much was inside of my daughter. This was not just a wish that makes me feel good. The fact is children with severe autism do have a lot inside and need a way to express their thoughts…

“The assumption of intelligence is vital because our children KNOW when they are not respected, believe and talked down to or worse, talked about in front of them as if they don’t understand,” she said.

David says, “This has been a revealing thing for me…I try not to judge people on the surface…she has so much to offer. She has so much going on.”

Julia’s writings are the window to her soul. She enjoys writing poetry, and hopes to someday attend college and write children’s books.

Her writings include this poem, titled “Love”:

Inside my heart I hide
I have so much love
I can’t express
I try to show my love
But I don’t know how
Just believe
Julia likes to play with words as well. A couple of months ago, she wrote:
Night falls
Chris calls
Julia sleeps
Mom keeps
Angel wings
God sings

Autism, or autism spectrum disorders (ADSs) are a group of related brain-based disorders that affect a child’s behavior, social and communication skills, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Autism is a lifelong condition. There is no cure. However, children who have autism can progress and learn new skills, according to the Academy.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 1 in 150 have autism. The cause or causes of autism are still unknown, although many theories are being researched, according to the Academy.

Autism is currently classified as a developmental disability or disorder; however, many children who have autism also have immunological, gastrointestinal and neurological problems, according to Bryan Jepson, M.D. in his book, “Changing the Course of Autism: A Scientific Approach for Parents and Physicians.”

Julia has migraine headaches, digestive problems and frequently battles severe illnesses, Vicki says. For years, a frustrated Julia experienced pain she could not readily explain to her also-frustrated parents.

“It was a miracle the first time she could tell me what hurt,” Vicki said during her April 2 presentation.

Parents raising children who have autism face emotional, financial and physical challenges.

Because autism is classified as a developmental disorder, insurance companies often do not pay for large portions of a child’s therapies, Vicki explains.

The Martins downsized, selling a larger home and moving to a smaller home with Julia and their two sons, in order to pay for Julia’s therapy.

It was worth it –– but it has been a challenge, Vicki says.

And Julia, through her silence, wrote:

“In a small town in rural Wisconsin there lived a girl who understood many things. She was not just average. She was special and had some extraordinary people around her. These people motivated her to press on regardless of the cost. How can she ever repay them for their love?”

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Making strides with equine therapy

It’s not every day you see a horse in the school gym, but that’s exactly what greeted Fox River Middle School students last week.

The kids carefully walked past Del Rio, the large chestnut-colored Quarter horse, as they took their seats in the bleachers.

Del Rio eyeballed the students, bellowing an occasional complaint about the warm temperature. He was used to being outside, demonstrated by his almost fluffy-looking coat, and the heat made him a bit uncomfortable, explained Denise Murphy, director of operations for Willow Creek Ranch, Inc. Therapeutic Riding Center, a non-profit organization located in the Waterford/Burlington area.

Murphy and Willow Creek Ranch owner Jennifer Pape talked to students about how equine therapy helps children and adults with disabilities, including some of their classmates.

Pape introduced “Del” to the students while Murphy walked him around, keeping him busy during the presentation.

Willow Creek Ranch began its operations in June, she said. Pape works as a therapist at Lakeview Specialty Hospital in Waterford. “I have seen the progress people make during their therapies,” she said, adding that she wants to help people continue strengthening and stimulating their bodies even when the regular therapy is completed.

Willow Creek allows her to combine her therapy skills with her love for horses, she said.

Willow Creek is a member of the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA), and Pape spent eight months training to become a certified instructor.

“It’s more than just putting a child on a horse,” she said.

Therapeutic riding helps children and adults with a variety of disabilities and conditions such as Attention Deficit Disorder, Autism, Traumatic Brain Injuries, Cerebral Palsy, Muscular Dystrophy and others. The games and activities riders do on a horse help them improve motor skills, self-esteem, concentration and problem-solving abilities.

The rhythmic movement of the horse stimulates the riders’ bodies, helping improve their muscle tone, strength, balance and head and trunk control.

“Sometimes we have the kids sitting on the horse backwards,” Pape said.

Two children who were non-verbal and autistic said their first words within three weeks of starting the program, giving their horses short verbal commands, Pape said.

That’s the miracle of therapeutic riding, and the foundation of Willow Creek’s motto, “Where life reins…miracles happen,” she said.

Therapeutic riding also has cognitive benefits, helping a rider develop his or her atten-tion, memory, spatial orientation and awareness of self and others.

“For some of the kids, it may be difficult to sequence things, to follow directions,” Pape said.

Behavioral benefits include decreased anxiety, depression, mood swings and impulsivity.

The program runs with numerous volunteers – often four to five for each rider, she said.

The riders aren’t the only ones to benefit from the program either, she said.

The volunteers are rewarded as well, being around the horses, being part of a team and developing relationships with each other and with the riders.

Pape introduced Fox River Middle School student Crystal Schmittinger, 13. Crystal has Cerebral Palsy and is wheelchair bound most of the time. She rides at the ranch every Saturday – Del is her assigned horse – and she clearly responds to him with a big smile and a “thumbs up.”

Crystal demonstrated therapeutic riding for her classmates with the help of Pape, Murphy, Chris Biondich – her mom, Andrea Kebbekus – her teacher, and fellow FRMS student and volunteer Katlyn Syrett.

Crystal was moved from her wheelchair to Del’s back, laying flat and facing his rear. With encouragement from those around her, she and Del set off around the gym. Pape explained that after awhile, Crystal’s tight muscles would start to relax.

She asked Crystal how it was going. Crystal responded with her subtle “thumbs up” once again.

Classes at Willow Creek are only held on Saturdays at this time, but Pape and Murphy hope to do more with the program on a full-time basis, once an indoor arena is built. They are currently using a donated facility for indoor classes.

There is a waiting list of 10 students for the program. Pape said they need more volunteers to help serve those students as well.

Volunteers are also needed for a variety of tasks from light stable duties to horse handling, fundraising, recruiting, website management, photography, event planning and more.

Willow Creek Ranch, Inc., located at 2623 Maple Road, Burlington, is a 501(c) 3 non-profit organization that relies on donations and scholarship funding and support from the community to keep the cost of lessons at a minimal fee.