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Equine therapy volunteer learns from horses as she helps others

Mary Vandevort gives riding lessons to disabled youth, eases stress of her OCD, ADHD

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  • More Young Achievers
  • Meet Mary Vandevort

    Age: 17

    Fun fact: Collects rubber ducks (she has about 80), and Breyer toy horses.

    Pets: Australian Shepherd named Sugar; a Chinese dwarf hamster named Skittles; and a parakeet named Obediah (Obie, for short).

    English or Western? She rides both, but prefers Western, especially when trail riding.

    Side note: Although Mary doesn’t own her own horse, every now and then she buys a piece of equipment, like a brush. She says she wants to be prepared for the day she is able to buy her dream horse – a Morgan.

    Information about Horse N Around: www.horsenaroundtrc.org.



LANCASTER, S.C. Mary Vandevort clicks her tongue and tugs Molly’s leadline to get the reluctant horse to walk.

Molly sighs and gives in, then begins circling the covered ring at Horse N Around therapeutic riding center in Lancaster, S.C. Molly’s passenger is Olivia Reimer, a 12-year-old with Down syndrome.

As Mary urges the horse into a trot, Olivia smiles and laughs loudly. “Do you like trotting?” asks Susan Reimer, Olivia’s mother. “Yeah, Mommy!” she shouts.

After multiple trips around the ring, Mary slows the horse with a soft “whoa.” Another volunteer and a speech therapist help Olivia down, and Mary leads Molly to the tack room, removes her saddle and turns her into a pasture for the evening.

Mary, a senior at Covenant Day School, volunteers at the center each Saturday, working primarily with youths who have physical and mental disabilities as they ride. The rest of the week, she balances schoolwork, her own riding lessons, church functions and volunteering in the community.

Multitasking can often be a challenge, Mary says, because she struggles with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Working with animals helps alleviate her stress.

“Volunteering relieves stress for her, gets her mind off school assignments, college preparation …” says Lisa Britton, Mary’s mother. “She may be stressed when she leaves for the barn, but she comes back relaxed.”

Mary says that early in her childhood, she connected with animals. Kittens, dwarf hamsters, hermit crabs, birds, dogs – each soothed her, she says. When she became anxious, she petted a kitten. When she was tired, she cuddled with her dog, Sugar.

In fifth grade, Mary found comfort in a big quarter horse name Red. He was the first horse she ever rode. Before hopping into the saddle on that first day of riding lessons, she recalls wrapping her arms around Red’s neck, embracing him in a hug. His thick winter coat was fuzzy and warm, she says, and she could see his snorts of breath in the January air.

She relied on her time spent with animals for its peace and quiet. Horseback riding in particular was relaxing.

Her school days were quite the opposite. Mary’s classmates sometimes mocked her for her ticks or quirks, she says, side effects of her OCD and ADHD, which were diagnosed in fifth grade.

“A lot of kids with OCD also have ADHD. ...You tend to see those two running together,” says Dr. Kevin Gyoerkoe with the Anxiety and OCD Treatment Center in Charlotte. “The neurological underpinnings for each of those problems are similar.”

According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 4.1 percent of adults and 9 percent of adolescents have ADHD in the United States. The condition is often detected in school children because it tends to cause disruptions and lack of focus in the classroom. The International OCD Foundation estimates 1 in 200 youth in the United States have that disorder.

“Finding an outlet (like horseback riding) is always helpful,” says Gyoerkoe. “It won’t cure it, but it can lessen the stress and let you focus on something else.”

To calm her nerves and decrease her ticks in elementary school, Mary says she carried her riding gloves, which smelled of hay and horses – a reminder of the barn. “(Horses) didn’t look at me strange,” Mary says, when she made gargled noises in the back of her throat, or wrinkled her forehead continuously. “I tended to stress less around them ... which meant I had fewer ticks.”

“Mary may be the most perseverant student I have ever had,” says Robi Rego, Mary’s yearbook teacher. “She has developed into being one of the strongest students I’ve ever had. She’s very comfortable with herself and her faith (in God) is so genuine.”

Almost every Saturday, Mary makes the 40-minute drive to Horse N Around from her Matthews home. There, she finds serenity with the horses, and lends a hand to others needing the mental and physical therapy that horses can provide.

“(Christ) says in the Bible that He will never give us more than we are able to handle,” Mary says.

Kasie Trivett, owner of Horse N Around, says she relies on Mary to be a leader at the center and to work with riders, parents and full-time therapists.

“When ... I see (Mary) here, I know everything is OK,” Trivett says. “Just the fact that I can trust her is a big deal ... and she never complains.”

Chelsey Bostelman, speech therapist at the center, echoed Trivett. “Volunteers like Mary know more about horses than I do, which really helps me be able to do my job.”

For those limited physically, horseback riding moves the body in a rhythm that is similar to human gait, which helps improve flexibility, muscle strength, and balance, Trivett says. Mentally, riding helps with visual motor skills, fine motor skills, bilateral control and cognition (attention and memory).

“(Mary’s) desire to serve others is amazing,” Lisa Britton says. “It floats her boat to serve others.”

Mary hopes to take what she’s learned at the therapeutic center and apply it in college by majoring in equine therapy. “I want to take something I really, really love and give back,” Mary says. “I want to do something purposeful.”

Penland: 704-358-6043 Twitter: @BrittanyPenland
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