GaitWay to summer

Visually impaired campers take horses through course

Before throwing her right leg over Sophie, a tall, white quarter-horse, Henrynesha Hasten, age 6 and no more than 4 feet tall, had to drop her white walking cane and climb a set of stairs.

Her earlier fear — that she may fall off — appeared to evaporate atop the animal as she held the purple reins in her hands.

Riding a horse for the first time as part of a summer camp for the visually impaired, Henrynesha had stroked Sophie’s withers and black-streaked mane, then settled in and sat up.

“That’s a big girl!” said Shelley Rose, therapist at GaitWay Therapeutic Horsemanship in Baton Rouge, while she helped steady little Henrynesha. “Can you say walk on?”

“Walk on!” she echoed in a tiny voice and sauntered away with her pink-beaded braids swishing from her riding helmet.

Ten blind and visually impaired children ages 6 to 16 traveled to the outskirts of Baton Rouge on Tuesday to ride horses as part of the Lighthouse Summer Camp.

The annual monthlong camp, organized by Lighthouse Louisiana, a resource and advocate for the visually impaired, seeks to instill independence in the children and help them experience new activities, said Jenice Heck, vice president of vision rehabilitation services for the Lighthouse.

“A lot of our kids have never experienced horses before, have never had a chance to touch one or be close to one,” she said.

That doesn’t mean the children feared the 1,000-pound animals. All campers stuck their feet in the stirrups and rode with a volunteer guiding the way.

“People don’t realize our kids are used to going out there and exploring new worlds,” Heck said, “and they’ve got a lot of self-confidence, and they are ready to take on the world and see what’s out there for them.”

Henrynesha rode laps in the riding arena, slowly walking the horse around cones placed in the dirt. Earlier she said she loved ponies and wanted a white one, so she hoped the day went well.

“I need my towel!” she said after three laps in the sun.

The guides weaved Henrynesha and the others through a series of cones, then walked the horses to a table where the riders grabbed a plush duck toy and maneuvered the horse back to a bucket where they deposited it. From the arena’s center, Rose watched and shouted tips to the new riders.

“Sit up nice and tall!” she said. “I want a good posture!”

For the past seven years Laura Powell has volunteered at GaitWay, taking care of the horses, ponies and a donkey named Lucky Strike.

“It makes them so happy to be out here and on the horse,” she said of the children she assists. “That’s the highlight of their week.”

GaitWay, a nonprofit organization that uses horses for therapy, often works with children who need to strengthen their bodies, a major rationale for hippotherapy. The horses’ intelligence amazes Powell.

“They live to please and they want to know what’s up, and they want to help and make you feel good,” she said.

While preparing to ride, Stephen Toth, 16, of New Orleans, described what horseback riding felt like to a blind person.

“It’s a graceful back and forth sensation,” he said, adding that the feeling is relaxing.

After Stephen and Henrynesha dismounted their horses, they combed the horses’ manes and then threw horseshoes. A lunch and donated Kleinpeter ice cream capped the day before the drive back to New Orleans.

Aside from exercise and a fun morning in the sun, the children received a type of knowledge the blind and visually impaired can only receive through throwing a leg over a 1,000-pound animal.

“These horses are opening their world and giving them an opportunity they wouldn’t have before,” Heck said. “Now when they hear about horses in school or they talk about horses in school they’ll have this experience to fall back on.”