Turning Pointe

The pride in Monica Caldwell’s voice was clear as she described watching her son, James, mount a horse on his own.

What is normally a simple task for an experienced horseback rider—James has been riding for more than five years—was actually a great accomplishment for the 11-year-old from Warwick. For years, it took the help of three other people to get James —who has high-functioning cerebral palsy and is hearing impaired—in the saddle for his lessons at Turning Pointe Therapeutic Riding in Ashaway, R.I.

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Today, he is able to mount on his own, and it is just a piece of the life changes for the better that he has experienced.

The Caldwells’ didn’t know that James—who has a twin brother Ryan—had any impairments until he was 3 years old. With the delayed diagnosis and lack of early intervention, his development fell even further behind. His muscle development, particularly on the right side of his body, was poor, and the hearing impairment affected his ability to balance himself.

“His ability to focus on tasks has been a huge improvement,” his mother said. “His balance is much better, and he is building more muscle tone in his hips and legs. His self confidence is so much higher now.”

Through both therapeutic recreational riding and hippotherapy (the use of the multidimensional movement of a horse to improve neurological function and sensory processing), Turning Pointe helps clients of all ages with a wide range of disabilities. Located at the 300-acre Ramrod Farm, Turning Pointe (formerly In Harmony Therapeutic Riding) is the state’s only North American Riding for the Handicapped certified center. It was started 15 years ago as brainchild of Maria Blackstone. With the financial backing of Rhode Island entrepreneur Roy Dubs ’71, it has since helped contribute to numerous success stories during the last 15 years.

While Dubs provided the backing, he was clear that it was Blackstone’s initial vision—and the work of today’s staff—that has made Turning Pointe such a success. Dubs purchased the land for Blackstone (he leases it to Turning Pointe today) and Blackstone’s husband, David, built the structures on the farm, including the 200-foot-by-90-foot indoor arena and 24-stall attached horse barn.

“What makes the program work are the people who are involved,” Dubs said. “It started with Maria and her desire to bring a new form of therapy to the area, and it goes right through the people involved today, who are as good as they come.”

The staff works with people dealing with autism; Down syndrome; cerebral palsy; multiple sclerosis; spinal cord injuries; and learning, visual and hearing impairments.

“This is a therapy that works,” Turning Pointe Therapeutic Program Manager Becca Crosby said. “The people who come through the program get the benefit of intense therapy without realizing it is therapy. The horses serve as the greatest motivator for the clients.

“We have had people who have gone through many other types of therapy before they come here. A lot of them have feelings of anger and frustration when they first arrive, but that all changes when they interact with the horses. They develop a relationship with the horses that in turn builds their confidence and sense of independence.”

Crosby, who started at Turning Pointe as a volunteer while a student at Chariho High School, said the joy in watching people make progress in their lives is what drives the staff at Turning Pointe. What they have seen runs the gamut from wheelchair bound clients learning to walk again to sensory-challenged clients with autism feeling comfortable with making physical contact with the horses.

“The pleasure of seeing what people, especially the children, are capable of doing makes this work special,” Crosby said. “We have kids who come in here screaming and crying, but once they get on a horse, that stops. There is a bond with the horse that can’t really be explained, but it works.”

Physical therapist Pat Dutson ’98, M.S. ’01 (a Human Science and Services grad) has been involved with Turning Pointe for the last five years. She learned of the program through her sister, Rhonda O’Donnell, a Turning Pointe client who has multiple sclerosis. When Dutson saw the impact of hippotherapy on her sister, she got involved. Dutson now runs the hippotherapy program at Turning Pointe.

“Turning Pointe has an enchanting quality about it,” Dutson said. “When you see the impact the riding has on people, it just puts a spell on you.”

Dutson has worked closely with the Physical Therapy Department at the University of Rhode Island to conduct research projects in conjunction with Turning Pointe. Through the research, Dutson is providing scientific data on the value of hippotherapy while also showing students in the P.T. program how to use creative thinking when working with people with disabilities.

“When we bring in students for clinical work, they get a taste for thinking outside of the box,” Dutson said. “It gives everyone involved a chance to open their minds to new possibilities.”

For all the success Turning Pointe has experienced through the years, Crosby said the staff is constantly working to secure financing for Turning Pointe’s programs. The fees charged for the therapeutic and hippotherapy programs fall well short of the cost of operation. Insurance companies have balked at helping to defray the costs, though Dutson is hoping the findings of her research will help change that.

“Without Roy, we would not be here,” Crosby said. “He has a passion for helping people, and he provides support for us to keep working with so many wonderful people.”

Not comfortable with accepting credit for the joy Turning Pointe brings to the people involved, Dubs heaped praise on the staff and volunteers who help enrich the lives of clients.

“What the staff at Turning Pointe does is amazing,” Dubs said. “My role is small; they make it special. There are kids who come through here who have gone through all different forms of physical therapy, and nothing has worked. Then they get on a horse, and suddenly something works. When those small miracles happen, it tugs at your heart.”

— By Shane Donaldson ’99