Saturday, September 19, 2009
SINCERELY FALLBROOK: London-bound in a saddle
TOM PFINGSTEN - For the North County Times | Posted: Friday, September 18, 2009 8:10 pm
Every lap that Adria Di Maria makes around the dusty riding arena near Bonsall brings her closer to London.
One minute she might be practicing a proper equestrian walk, the next a canter ---- "smooth but fast, like flying" ---- but with every pass, the physically disabled Fallbrook woman is improving her chances of making a once-in-a-lifetime appearance.
July 2012 will mark the return of the Summer Olympics to Great Britain, and Di Maria plans to be competing on horseback a month later in the London Paralympics.
That leaves a little more than 1,000 days to practice coaxing perfect performances from show horses while her feet are strapped into stirrups. Most of those days will be spent in the saddle at the nonprofit REINS Therapeutic Horsemanship facility off South Mission Road.
(The Paralympics differ from the Special Olympics in that they are held immediately after the Summer Games in the same city, and are for physically disabled competitors, whereas the latter are geared toward the "intellectually" disabled, according to the Special Olympics Web site.)
Di Maria's story is not a fall-off-the-horse, get-back-on cliche: A victim of polio as a child, she's always had limited use of her legs and hadn't ridden a horse until four years ago, when she found an online video of another "para"-equestrian.
"There was a gal there with no legs and I thought, 'If she can do it with no legs, I can do it with two weak legs,'" Di Maria told me before one of her recent practice sessions.
Minutes later, a 30-year-old Dutch warmblood named Pan Pan carried Di Maria toward the riding arena. Her trainer, Fallbrook resident Sarah Newton-Cromwell, shouted instructions from the fence while Di Maria tried to prod Pan Pan into a canter ---- the quickest pace required for Di Maria to compete.
Pan Pan himself has an interesting past: Imported from the Netherlands decades ago, he was a competitive jumper until old age got the best of him.
"He has a little bit of arthritis in one of his legs, and he gets winded, so I can't push him real hard," Di Maria explained. Pan Pan nosed my notepad as I jotted down his story.
Sadly, he isn't likely to make it anywhere near London, even if Di Maria qualifies and ends up competing. His work is here, in Fallbrook, as an "old professor" ---- equestrian-speak for an experienced horse with the patience to bear newbies learning how to ride.
In case you're wondering, there is a lingering sense of urgency about the whole effort: At 59, Di Maria said, "I feel like this is my last hoorah ---- if I don't do it now, I'm never going to do it."
"I'm living my dream," she added.
Di Maria's isn't the only inspiring story at REINS: Debbie Shinner, who directs the 10-acre nonprofit facility, said 180 physically and mentally disabled people ride there every week.
The therapy is unique, as "core" muscles in the torso are strengthened by the natural movement of the horses, Shinner explained.
Di Maria said that as she spent hundreds of hours practicing at REINS, she came to deeply appreciate its singular approach to disability. She has also become an outspoken booster of the program, helping to coordinate an upcoming visit by a Paralympic silver medalist to REINS on Nov. 8, for example.
The nonprofit facility will also be hosting its 13th annual "Country Hoedown" fundraiser on Oct. 10. Call 760-731-9168 for more information about the event, which features food, music and at least one riding demonstration ---- a pa deux or "dance for two" by Di Maria and Newton-Cromwell.
While London is the goal on which Di Maria has set her sights, perhaps it is in the daily experience of riding that she finds the most benefit.
I can say that because I've watched as she carefully brushed Pan Pan, saddled him, fed him carrots.
I witnessed the apparent difficulty of getting around on foot as she moved toward the elevated platform that allowed her access to the saddle.
But then she rode, and it was impossible not to feel a little bit of the thrill.