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An Exceptional Rider: 4-H program benefits special needs children, their families, community

Amelia Cohen, left, walks alongside trainer Lois Phelps with Phelps' Appaloosa on her Warren County Farm. Rich Cooley/Daily

Amelia Cohen pets Cletus, an Appaloosa horse. Rich Cooley/Daily

Amelia Cohen of Markum cleans the hoof of a horse named Cletus. Rich Cooley/Daily

By Kim Walter -- kwalter@nvdaily.com

Amelia Cohen loves to smile and giggle, especially when someone brings up riding horses.

"I love it," the 12-year-old said when asked about the activity.

Amelia, a Fauquier County resident, participates in the Warren County 4-H Exceptional Rider program. The program is designed for kids with special needs, and gives them a chance to ride and show horses at state horse shows. However, even though Amelia has Down syndrome, her mother said she feels the program helps "throw her in the mix" with other kids instead of secluding her.

Amelia's mother, Ann Deans Masch, tried putting Amelia into other activities before, but never saw great results.

"She tried ballet and Taekwondo, and she liked them somewhat, but I didn't get the sense that she was participating to the best of her ability," Masch said.

Masch had heard of therapeutic riding for special needs children, but was weary of keeping Amelia away from other kids. Three years ago, she heard about 4-H's Exceptional Rider program, and asked her neighbor who was involved with 4-H, Debbie Jo Foster, if she'd be willing to work with Amelia.

"She said absolutely," Mash said. "There was never any question or hesitation."

Foster made available to Amelia her horses, barn and supplies to take care of the animals. Though Amelia didn't participate in the Virginia State Horse Show in 2010, she qualified and competed in both 2011 and 2012.

"Both years, Amelia was the only Exceptional Rider in the state," Masch said. "It made me realize that people aren't aware, because progressive parents want our kids doing as many things as possible without having to make major adjustments, and that's what 4-H is so good at."

Amelia and her brother, Jake, who also participates in 4-H, take care of horses four days a week, and their mother said they're happy to do it.

"Not once have I heard them say they don't want to go to the barn," she said. "They're actually happy to do the grunt work, and I can't say that was true for any other activities Amelia was involved in."

Masch also likes the work preparation that goes along with 4-H, as she worried that once Amelia was done with school, she wouldn't be able to find work.

"I see her clean, feed and care for these animals with so much detail ... she knows more about a lot of this stuff than I do," she said and laughed. "But that's the thing. Here we thought we were just doing something easy and fun for her, but really she's getting the exact same thing out of this that any other kid is, which are practical job skills."

When Amelia went to the most recent horse show in September, she competed and "cleaned up," leaving the event with a trophy and several ribbons.

"She was glowing," Masch said about her daughter after the show. "But she doesn't really care about the awards. What she really loves is the verbal praise from her peers. I would love for her to have a winning or losing experience, just like any other kid."

Masch said Amelia has become more natural at complimenting other kids as well, and the fact that she likes horses gives her a common bond with a lot of people.

"It's just brought out her real abilities, responsibility and initiative," she said. "Plus the family spends an additional six hours together that we wouldn't otherwise."

About six months ago, Amelia began training with Lois Mangene Phelps, who grew up in 4-H. While Phelps says she hasn't received any formal education in therapeutic riding, she said she feels it doesn't matter because she teaches "Amelia just like any other kid."

"To me it was just common sense that riding would help her. She can sit and balance and the movement helps her," she said. "Honestly, she's a lot easier to teach than other kids. She's not scared, she's confident, and she doesn't think about other things besides what I ask her to do. It's pretty simple."

Phelps said at this point that she wouldn't know how to separate Amelia from her peers and work differently with her.

"She's not different. Other kids who've been doing it longer ride a whole lot worse than her," she said. "When other kids are goofing off or chatting, she's the one cleaning the stalls and checking on the horses. She wants to do it, and that makes a good horseman, too."

Masch said choosing to put Amelia in the Warren County 4-H was one of the best decision she's made for her daughter.

"Not only does she know the other kids, but she knows their parents and siblings," she said. "It's so important that Amelia is a part of her community and not just living in it."

Masch said she hopes that other parents of special needs children will consider getting them into 4-H activities because "it's a great, easy place to mainstream your kids."

"Maybe I'm guilty of underestimating her, but this has shown me that Amelia isn't as special needs as I thought she was," she said. "Now this is something I want to pursue for years to come. It's not just a little kid thing anymore, and I'm looking forward to seeing that progression with 4-H."

1 Comment

Congratulations Amelia!!! You go girl! Everyone is so proud of you and your accomplishments. You mom is a friend of mine and I think that she and your dad have raised you and Jake to want to try something in order to learn something different. It's hard to believe that you are almost a teenager. The years have just flown by. Ann, you are an exceptional person with your love and dedication to these kids - they are awesome kids. Keep up the good work. Love and hugs to you both - Jeanie

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