Carriage Driving for Individuals with Disabilities

Driving Magic
By Jennifer Lindskoog, Founder & Executive Director

Driving Magic Inc_010It is 9:00 Friday morning and volunteers from Driving Magic, Inc. are preparing for a Magic Workshop: driving instructors are communicating lesson plans, horse handlers and certified drivers are busy grooming and harnessing, student assistants are staging teaching aids in the arena, on trails and in carriages, and activities volunteers are setting up art and crafts, refreshments and the picnic area. There is a little competition among volunteer teams for who will most quickly and thoroughly complete safety checks to be the first to enjoy warm-ups; and there is always a great sense of anticipation and sincere joy as 10:15 draws near, the time when the buses and cars from a local school’s special education class will arrive. While the teams perform final checks and test teaching aids on the sensory trail, the buses arrive. While many workshops are for teens or adults, this week 5 buses emerge carrying 25 pre-school students from Fort Daniel Elementary. That is when the magic begins for students, teachers and volunteers alike.  Regardless of students’ special needs, each experiences this moment in a unique and profound way–the sight of horse-drawn carriages entering the arena, the thunderous sound of horse hooves, the trembling of the earth as carriages pass by the waiting area, the smell of the countryside that envelopes them, the pumpkin patch where they will be taken to by horse-drawn carriage to pick from a field of preschool-sized pumpkins.

Driving Magic_cherrypublicity_Dream Photography_007As the turnouts stand poised and ready for their special passengers, volunteers work to prepare each participant for his/her experience by fitting helmets and practicing commands or hand movements.  Each participant is escorted into the arena to first greet his or her volunteer team, but the greatest excitement is in greeting the horse.  Prince, a 1900-pound draft horse driving the wheelchair-accessible carriage, turns and lowers his head a scratch on the nose. As his student is situated in the carriage, Prince attentively listens to whatever verbal or physical commands his student can achieve, interpreting his student’s needs and the skills that will be learned today. This student, like most, prefers “come up” versus “whoa” because it takes him on a journey that he may not otherwise experience as a person with a disability. It is less about this student’s diagnosis than is it about his specific needs and the skills he can accomplish; skills that may be imperceptible to those who are able-bodied but mean so much to a person with disabilities, regardless of age or the severity of the disability.  Perhaps the accomplishment is to use the reins to steer through a cones course or to learn that saying “gee” tells the horse to turn right; perhaps the objective is simply sensory or environmental – to calmly experience the movement and breeze as the horse-drawn carriage trots around the arena. It is an experience that promotes self-esteem and confidence and, most importantly, happiness. This is the magic of carriage driving for the disabled.

About Driving Magic
Driving Magic, Inc. is a 501(c)(3)non-profit which provides therapeutic and recreational carriage driving for children and adults with developmental and/or physical disabilities. We opened in 2004 with a donated draft horse, a borrowed cart and harness, and a young adult student whose family believed in the benefits of this type of equine-assisted activity and who trusDriving Magic Inc_012ted our business plan (this student still attends lessons on Sundays). While therapeutic carriage driving delivers such benefits as improved muscle tone, balance, posture and coordination, enhanced cognitive skills such as sequencing, spatial, environmental and directional awareness and improved motor planning, I believe it’s the freedom, empowerment, and confidence experienced by our students that makes the difference.  Traversing Steadfast Farms to feel the wind, listen to the trees and frogs, stop to smell and taste the nectar on “honeysuckle row,” click to the clip-clop of hooves on the driveway and feel the cadence of the horse as it moves in walk and trot, touches students and volunteers alike. And yes, speed, the natural speed of a horse-drawn carriage, is appealing to many of our students; especially for those whose disability so severely impacts their ability to experience the world around them.

Who Can Benefit

She has Autism, there’s NO WAY she’ll put on a helmet. There’s nothing much you can do for him; he’s too severe.  He’ll never learn to drive, so what’s the benefit? He’s scared of horses. She can’t see, how can she steer a carriage? I’m just not sure she’ll do it; she’s tried sports in school and just doesn’t have the confidence for it. She can’t use her upper body, how will she drive a horse?

Driving Magic_cherrypublicity_Dream Photography_001These are just some of the comments we hear when going through the interview process prior to a new student or group coming to Driving Magic, Inc.  What continues to astound, amaze, motivate, and create this heartfelt love for what we do is witnessing just the opposite.  With a thorough understanding of each participant’s needs, a well thought-out lesson and skills progression plan and the extraordinary connection between horses and people with disabilities, so much can be accomplished by individuals with mild to severe/profound disabilities.  When a participant steps up into the carriage (or rides up the lift), grasps reins (or a noodle or communicator) and commands into action a horse so powerful yet so docile and loving, something changes…you may catch it subtlety or it blows you away.  And you know that their life and yours will, thankfully, never again be the same.

So, YES he CAN hold his head up for 15 minutes on a cross-country trail drive, and YES she has become an advanced independent driver, and YES she puts her own helmet on by herself now and YES he can lead, groom and drive his horse, and YES she does drive on active reins with her feet, and YES she turned that 1900-pound horse in the direction of the handbells to perfectly stay on the obstacle course and OF COURSE, there wasn’t a dry eye at the farm today!

Driving Magic Inc_011To Find Out More

To receive more information, to volunteer or to donate to Driving Magic, Inc., please go to drivingmagicinc.org or call 404-358-4129. To learn more about carriage driving for individuals with disabilities, you can access the following resources:

  • usdfd.org (United States Driving for the Disabled)
  • How Many Angels Does It Take: The Remarkable Life of Heather Brooks, which can be purchased directly by sending an email to Janice Strang, Driving Magic instructor and mother of Heather Brooks, at drstang@bellsouth.net or 678-907-3247.

Many thanks to Steadfast Farms, Hoschton, GA, for hosting our program and for honoring Driving Magic at the December 5, 2015 ACTHA event at the farm.

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1215Originally published in the ACTHA Monthly Magazine December Issue.  To read more stories like this click here > 

Or click here to view archives of past issues >

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