Monday, February 22, 2010

Therapeutic riding program in California struggles amid budget cuts

From The Bakersfield Californian: In the picture, Sage Wright snuggles up with the horse at M.A.R.E. after her ride.

Ross Brunstedt has cerebral palsy and doesn't have good balance. Riding a horse at MARE works the 3-year-old boy's core muscles and provides a passive therapy to help better his balance.

"He gets excited for Tuesdays. This is the only thing he has available," said his mother, Holly Brunstedt.

Ross used to go to physical therapy at a clinic, but his funding, like that of other children, has been cut in the state budget.

Mastering Abilities Riding Equines has been impacted by a huge decrease in state funding this year and its leaders fear more cuts are on the way.

MARE provides therapeutic equine riding assisted programs to children and adults with physical, cognitive or emotional challenges.

"It's a little piece of heaven out here, and I'd hate to see it go away," executive director Deborah Durkan said.

MARE receives some of its funding through Kern Regional Center, which is one of California's 21 regional centers that coordinate community services to citizens with developmental disabilities.

In the Budget Act of 2009, state legislators placed limitations on services and support that regional centers provide. According to a letter sent to Kern Regional Center service providers, two of those limitations were that regional centers cannot purchase social recreation activities or non-medical therapies. However, under certain circumstances, there is an exemption from the prohibition against these limitations. MARE has lost roughly $70,000 in social recreation activity funds from state.

"It has been a real challenging year for us -- like all public agencies, how can you continue to deliver family friendly services with budget cuts?" said Kern Regional Center associate director Jeffrey Popkin, who said people are now just seeing the full implementation of the reductions.

According to Popkin, more than $370 million has been cut from regional center budgets, and the governor has initially proposed another $25 million in cuts.

Last September, there were 104 children on MARE's roster, and according to Durkan, there are now 57 children because the non-profit's social recreation activities funded by Kern Regional Center were cut. It costs roughly $75 to put a kid on a horse, and at least 35 were funded by Kern Regional Center are seeking scholarships to continue their therapy.

According to Durkan, the only state-funded activity MARE still provides children is hippothearpy, which can improve balance, posture, mobility and function. This licensed health professional therapy may also affect psychological, cognitive, behavioral and communication functions for clients who have been diagnosed with cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis and autism to name a few.

"It's such a huge benefit for the kids that the state doesn't understand," said Brenda Vickery, whose 16-year-old daughter has autism.

Tess Vickery's funds from Kern Regional Center were completely cut, which means she had to take a break from riding at MARE. Her mom, Brenda Vickery, said her daughter received a scholarship and will continue to ride next week.

"She can do something for herself -- when she's up there, she's in control," Brenda Vickery said.

Another parent whose world was rocked by state budget cuts is Coby Wright, the father of 4-year-old Sage Wright.

"Every facet of my life is being trimmed and cut," Coby Wright said. He is a firefighter who took a pay cut, volunteers as an assistant wrestling coach at CSUB whose program was cut, and has had to fight to keep his daughter's funds from Kern Regional Center.

His daughter has cerebral palsy and benefits from riding a pony because of the sensory aspect -- she gets used to a new environment.

"A lot of riders are having things taken away from them that they can't afford to do and it's sad for the family and for riders that California has gotten into this state of affair," said Diane Hopkins, president of MARE's board of directors.

MARE, which will celebrate its 20th anniversary in October, hopes to make up the gap in state funding through fund-raisers and private donations.