Taking the reins
Disabled adults learn life skills by working with horses at a farm in Masaryktown. It takes hard work and a gentle touch, but there are rewards, too: responsibility and learning to take care of another life.
By DAN DeWITT

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 9, 2001


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MASARYKTOWN -- Work mixes naturally with learning at Artists' Gardens & Stable.
MASARYKTOWN -- Work mixes naturally with learning at Artists' Gardens & Stable.

Jerilyn McCarthy, an instructor, asked Aaron Selke to help her saddle up Misty, a patient Arabian quarter horse cross that some developmentally disabled clients were waiting to ride.

"What's this called?" McCarthy asked as she passed a strap around Misty's chest.

"A breastplate," said Selke, a client in the program.

"Good," said McCarthy as she handed him another strap. "What about this?"

"I don't know."

"Rhymes with earth," she said.

"Girth," Selke said, smiling.

"Great," McCarthy said. "That's right."

Artists' Gardens is based on a faith in the instructional power of working with animals, especially ones as responsive and intelligent as horses.

"I just think this is a really good atmosphere to teach responsibility and life skills," said Connie Calub, the owner of the for-profit training center, which is on an 18-acre horse farm in Masaryktown.

The center is quiet, except for wind chimes and the barely audible buzz of traffic on County Line Road and U.S. 41. The soft noses of the horses -- most of whom are old and therefore tranquil -- protrude from the stables, which were pleasantly cool and dim on this unseasonably warm morning the week after Thanksgiving.

Besides riding terminology, clients learn cleanliness, safety and how to overcome the fear of large animals that most of them initially have, Calub said. Donna Lones, 37, who is both a volunteer and a client, says the program sometimes transforms people. Most are accustomed to being helped, she said. Here, they become helpers.

"They learn to be gentle," she said. "And they learn to care for something other than themselves."

Help from the governor
Specialized, for-profit programs such as Artists' Gardens are a growing part of the state's program for people with developmental disabilities.

Calub, 53, who grew up in rural Nebraska and, along with her husband, Ron, is an avid rider, founded Artists' Gardens two years ago. About the same time, the state began to dramatically boost the developmental services budget; since 1999, it has jumped from $310-million to nearly $800-million.

The increase was inspired partly by a lawsuit filed in federal court on behalf of the thousands of developmentally disabled residents in Florida who had languished for years on the state's waiting list for services. It was also due to Gov. Jeb Bush, who promised during his 1998 campaign to increase funding for the disabled, said Carl Littlefield, the state's developmental disabilities coordinator.

"I would attribute this to a governor who has taken this program under his wing," Littlefield said.

The number of organizations, many of them for-profit companies, licensed to serve developmentally disabled residents has grown with the budget.

In the five-county Department of Children and Families district that includes Hernando County, the total number of service providers has increased from 176 to 450 in the past 31/2 years. The programs include a variety of medical and residential services, as well as 23 adult training centers such as Artists' Gardens, said Renae Smith, the district spokeswoman.

The proliferation has caused enough concerns about regulation that the state had to hire a company to monitor providers this year, said Mark Barry, the executive director of Arc Nature Coast in Hernando County.

"That's the downside," Barry said.

The increasing number of programs also means Barry's nonprofit organization, which once had a virtual monopoly on training developmentally disabled Hernando residents, now has competition.

"If I was looking at this just from a business perspective, I would be going for as much market share as I could. But this is a different animal. They are competitors but cooperative competitors," Barry said of Artists' Gardens. "I think they do a good job of providing services. . . . From the (client's) perspective, it's a good thing."

'I love it here'
One of the major benefits, both Barry and Calub said, is choice. The people enrolled at Artists' Gardens are there because they want to be, Calub said.

Ron Calub picks up most of the clients at their homes in a jumbo van that arrives in the farmyard just before 10 a.m., kicking up dust and chasing away an orange tabby.

The clients, about 15 adults ranging in age from 22 to 58, walk from the van to what they call the classroom, which has a white marker board, but also couches and easy chairs instead of desks.

There, McCarthy outlines the day's schedule and asks the clients where they want to work. Six of them volunteer for the Artists' Gardens thrift store on U.S. 41. A few others ask for duty at the small animal barn, home to birds, bunnies and a ferret that spends most of his time sleeping in a length of PVC pipe in his cage. Most clients, though, head for the stable.

The clients cultivate a garden near the small-animal barn and create art to sell in the thrift store. But the stable has become the centerpiece of the program, exceeding even Calub's expectations.

In a small room smelling of grain, Krista Cunningham and Kim Gibson help McCarthy prepare buckets for the evening feeding.

Cunningham scoops portions of feed -- some plain, some laced with molasses and some for older horses -- into buckets marked with the horses' names: Dakota, Silver, My T and Misty. Gibson mixes the feed and stacks buckets.

John Holliday and Debra Windly fill the water troughs in the stalls.

Lones' regular morning job is brushing out the long, matted hair of the rabbits. She qualifies for the program because of health problems that leave her dependent on a wheelchair, but, unlike most of the other clients, she does not have developmental disabilities. For her, the work at Artists' Gardens is emotional and physical therapy.

"I love it here," she said. "If you're talking about the rabbits, they are nice and soft. The horses -- just being able to go up and touch one of those great big animals, that's just magnificent.

"And the perspective of getting on a horse, after being in a wheelchair, I can't even describe that. Usually I'm looking at bushes and people's belly buttons, and suddenly I'm looking down on everything."

Training, therapy mingle
Connie Calub realized the benefits of being around horses by riding with her husband. They bought their first horse in the mid 1980s, inspired by a trail ride they took while on vacation.

"We rented horses from a stable in Bend, Ore., and the next week we had our own horse," Ron Calub said.

At that time, and through most of the 1990s, Connie Calub was working with people who had suffered brain and spinal cord injuries. She has a master's degree in special education from the University of South Florida. While she and her husband acquired more horses -- they now have 18 -- she thought more and more about using horses for training and therapy.

"I always wanted to do something like this," she said.

The Calubs, who previously lived in Brandon, bought the farm in Masaryktown in 1997 and started the program two years later. Ron Calub, 57, was enlisted as a driver and maintenance man the day after he retired from his job as a trucker.

The couple's income is derived from the same source as Arc and other nonprofit agencies: the daily stipends, ranging from $25 to $46 per client, the state pays for training developmentally disabled residents. Clients pay nothing.

Other rewards include watching clients blossom, Connie Calub said, and presiding over a large, caring family of clients and staff.

"If you watch, you'll see a lot of love here," she said. "Even the bunnies and the ugly old ferret get love. . . . And riding gives (clients) a great life lesson in overcoming fear. They become the caretaker of something they were originally afraid of."

Selke, for example, a city boy from New York, is now confident enough around the horses that he leads Misty to a platform where the riders mount up.

Sissi Makinster, wearing a white cycling helmet, was riding for the second time in her life. Once in the middle of the sandy ring, she took hold of the reins and, with McCarthy's coaching, stopped Misty on her own.

"Pull (the reins) right back to your belly button," McCarthy said.

Guy Barnard rode next. "I rode the horse," he said. "I pulled on the reins and stopped it. I gave it a kick, and it started walking."


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