One stride at a time

Jacob and mother, Joanne Eccher with Vickie Thurber
Jacob gives a high-five to his mother, Joanne Eccher. To her left is instructor Vickie Thurber. Photos by Danielle Zerbonne

By Eleni Collins - June 14, 2007

Jacob exclaims an enthusiastic "Oh!" as he mounts Deborah, the Palomino-colored pony he rides. His mother and aunt take their places on either side of the saddle and instructor Vickie Thurber holds the reins. Jacob signals he's ready by clapping his hands together, once. All three women laugh, congratulate him, translate "walk on," and the lesson begins.

Leading Deborah is Ms. Thurber, a dedicated horsewoman in the Island community who has been teaching riding for over ten years. Most recently, she has lessened her load of training riders for horse shows and become more devoted to Rising Tide, a therapeutic equestrian center in West Tisbury.

Compared to show training, Ms. Thurber feels more compassion for therapeutic riding. "There's more of a sense of accomplishment. This is so rewarding, teaching people something they can do."

Jacob Bazzy
Jacob Bazzy does the "turtle rescue," part of the lesson's obstacle course.

Jacob Bazzy is one of Rising Tide's students. He is six and a half years old, a kindergarten student at the Chilmark School, and is non-verbal. He communicates through gestures, eye contact, signs, pictures, among many other ways. As part of his school's curriculum, he takes a lesson with Ms. Thurber every Monday.

"It's even fun in the sense of a family event that we do," says Jacob's father, Derrill Bazzy. "I think it's great that Vickie is getting the program going so other kids can have it too."

Jacob is one of the lucky few involved with the new center. Currently, there are 521 students in the Island's kindergarten through 12th grade school system who have special needs. With help from more volunteers, the center can expand and include many more students.

Rising Tide began when Ms. Thurber started working with therapist Susan Fieldsmith's clients. Ms. Fieldsmith leased the barn to the therapeutic center, and occasionally works with Ms. Thurber, as well as Rebecca Miller and Clare Harrington, who are also involved with the center. "I started teaching for other reasons than riding skills," Ms. Thurber says. "Then the c.p. [cerebral palsy] camp called, and I did that with Camp Jabberwocky." Then, the center was up and running for students like Jacob.

Jacob's parents, who were at his lesson, are thrilled with the program, Ms. Thurber, and their son's progress as a result of the riding lessons.

"You'll see it a little, he gets on the horse and his whole demeanor changes," says Mr. Bazzy. "It's not just Jacob, it's all kids. They make such a connection with the horse, it's phenomenal."

Jacob Bazzy
A mother and son moment.

Horse and rider

Jacob's lesson involves an obstacle course, called a brain gym, some trotting, and ends with a hug for the pony.

The obstacle course is designed to "stretch" Jacob's brain. During the "turtle rescue," he signals with a clap for Ms. Thurber to lead Deborah, and they're off to the bucket on top of the fence. There, Jacob reaches in for the stuffed reptiles, and passes them to his mother, JoAnn Eccher, on the opposite side. JoAnn says the color aloud, and then Jacob takes them all back, one by one, into the bucket.

An exercise like this works his brain and body. "It's really helped," says JoAnn, after the lesson. "The brain gym works both sides of his brain simultaneously. It helps his speech, he has a lot more sound repertoire when he's on the horse, and it's cumulative. The sound he makes on the horse, we use at home and put into songs."

Next, Jacob is rewarded with a trot, which he loves. You can tell by his laugh as he works on standing high in the saddle and posting. The lesson continues and Deborah weaves through cones, creating movement that is therapy for Jacob's body, and then Deborah is led over poles, simulating jumps. Jacob stretches up out of the saddle while Deborah walks over the poles, another brain gym lesson.

Though he is riding a horse, the lessons learned are not equestrian practice. "There's other things to address: memory, special awareness," Ms. Thurber says. "Riding skills do come along, but that's not the focus. It's helping them with whatever."

The technique is called Hippotherapy, a treatment that uses the horse's movement to improve a person's balance and mobility. A horse's rhythm is similar to a human's, and when used with the proper training, can help improve neurological function and sensory processing.

"Hippotherapy is great. It's a natural thing that happens between them and the horse," says Mr. Bazzy. "That connection really helps the kids focus and be at ease, which makes for really excellent teaching moments."

The educational moments combine with sentimental and loving gestures as Jacob leans down and kisses his mom at the lesson's end.

Now sitting with no saddle, Jacob leans forward on Deborah's back and neck and hugs her. Then, Jacob leans backwards on his back, "like being on a hammock," his mother says to him. All of this motion is still part of the lesson, though it seems not to be.

"He started out sitting in a saddle," Ms. Eccher says. "Eventually, we got him trotting more and did obstacle work with him. He loves to move his body, and the horse loves to move. When you get the horse and Jacob moving, it's fabulous."

Through Rising Tide, Ms. Thurber has developed such a relationship with Jacob and his parents that she attends Jacob's school events. Though it was a struggle to understand him at first, Ms. Thurber is proud of the progress. "I didn't know how to communicate at first. It's great learning his nuances and body language," she says. "I've only been with Jacob for about a year, but I can see a difference."

A call for help

For the center to continue training children and adults with disabilities and conditions ranging from a stroke to muscular dystrophy, more volunteers are needed. There is a volunteer training day this Sunday, June 17, from 10 am to 12 noon. Volunteer duties include grooming and tacking the horses, stable chores, side-walking during the lessons, and organizational office work, from fundraising to web design, among others. Adult volunteers are needed, but all are encouraged to ask about how they can help the program. Ms. Thurber said, "Volunteers are so important. We want to be able to help everybody, and not turn anyone away."

Rising Tide Therapeutic Riding Center, Fieldsmith Farm, is located at 40 Red Pony Road in West Tisbury, off of the Edgartown-West Tisbury Road. For more information, call Vickie Thurber at 508-693-6112, or 508-404-6816.