Healing Horses 10

Camelot Therapeutic Horsemanship Brings Hope, Strength and Independence To Riders

orseback riders are typically viewed as being strong, independent and fierce. Those same attributes are what the staff at Camelot Therapeutic Horsemanship, an organization that strives to improve the quality of life for students who have disabilities through horsemanship and outdoor activities, hopes to instill in its riders.

“I’m able to have command over a 1,100-pound animal … it’s really empowering, whether you have a disability or not, to have control over such a big animal,” says Alicia Draper, a volunteer who started at Camelot at 12, left at 18, returned at 28 and has been there ever since. She’s 34 now.

Draper is just one example of the many students who have completed Camelot’s program. Students range in age from seven to seventy, and after being accepted into the program, they are allowed a spot for a minimum of two years. They typically visit once a week for a 90-minute session during Camelot’s season, which ranges from October through the end of May.

This beautifully-appointed riding facility is located on 14.25 private acres in the Pinnacle Peak area of Scottsdale, deep in the desert. The administrative building, education center and barn are completely accessible. All of the equipment is at wheel-chair height, there are also grooves raked into the concrete floor that change direction so visually impaired students can differentiate between the tack or horse equipment area and the stables where the horses live, and labels above the equipment are all in braille.

The horses themselves are even tailored to the students. Camelot has eight horses, with some of them having narrower bodies to help wheelchair users who may have trouble getting their legs across. Volunteers accompany students on horses, and most of them ride in the covered arena that features a ramp beside it, which students can use to mount their horse. They are also able to ride on Camelot’s private trails or in the outdoor arena.

“They’re responsible for as much as possible: bringing the horse in, grooming the horse and tacking up,” says Hannah Brisso, Camelot’s principle riding instructor. “We help as much as is needed, but not more so.”

Although students learn plenty about horses, the animals are only one element found in Camelot’s comprehensive curriculum that’s designed to teach students independence above all else.

It’s a lesson that Camelot founder Eileen Szychowski, who was the first disabled Park Ranger on duty at the Grand Canyon, taught Draper when she was a child. She showed Draper how people with disabilities can lead fulfilling lives.

“She [Szychowski] was such a strong woman with a disability,” says Draper. “Even though her physical body might have been weak, she had command over her life and what she wanted to do. I wanted to do the same thing when I got older.”

Draper now serves as a mentor and instructor to other students at Camelot.

“I’ve learned that it’s okay to have a disability,” says Draper. “As a kid, I was really self-conscience about how I looked different … I think the whole process at Camelot freed me from what I used to think about myself.”

When executive director of Camelot, Mary Hadsall, watches students like Draper thrive, she knows that Camelot is working its magic.

“Other students can look up to her and see all that is possible. It really just comes from within. Whatever you want to do, whether you have a disability or not, what holds you back is yourself. So the power of belief is amazing,” says Hadsall.

“It’s not just our students that really go through this process of self awareness and this growth, it happens to every single volunteer that’s here too. The disability disappears. After a while, it’s not Alicia [Draper], an adult rider who has cerebral palsy. It’s just Alicia.”

For more information, please visit CamelotAZ.org.