By Joanna Sperapani
Elm Staff Writer
Founded in 1984, the Kent Association of Riding Therapy, otherwise known as KART, is a non-profit organization that aims to improve the lives of children and adults through therapeutic horseback riding and instruction.
KART is a program created through the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International, referred to as PATH International, which has promoted equine-assisted activities and therapies, or EAAT, for individuals with special needs since 1969. KART calls the Worthmore Equestrian Center in Worton home.
Marco Belperio is the riding instructor for KART, and is a PATH International Certified Riding Instructor. Originally from Novara, Italy, Belperio is trained in managing attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), bipolar disorder, anger management, and autism. In addition to working for KART, Belperio is the instructor for Bridges, also based at Worthmore Equestrian Center, a sister organization covering different aspects of the equine assisted activities, from riding therapy, to hippo therapy, to psychotherapy. He is also employed by Eastern Shore Psychological Services as a senior family advocate and therapeutic mentor for children, adolescents, and adults and is a certified psychiatric rehabilitation practitioner with the United States Psychiatric Rehabilitation Association.
“Riding therapy helps people with mental health challenges or physical disabilities through riding a horse,” said Belperio. “In the past few years the industry has broadened, and Bridges includes psychotherapy.” The program has become an integral part of the Kent County community, and the work of the instructors and volunteers benefits many who go to KART for help.
KART can be beneficial to the children in many ways, both emotionally and physically. “The term disability is not the word I would like to use, because we have some very high functioning children, who just because of self-esteem or anger management, or whatever reason, can be helped by our program,” said Belperio. “We have other students who are on the autism spectrum, the down-syndrome spectrum, and the riding therapy helps them as well. This is a very tight community, and years later I will talk to a parent who will tell me about their child that graduated and was able to ride, had his self-esteem boosted, and felt better about himself. The children that ride with us might not be able to ride in any other way, and maybe can’t do sports or other programs, and when they ride they finally feel like they are good at something; they like it. That is the most immediate benefit; they find an area they are good in and they like.”
Belperio has been involved with KART since its start. “I came to the States in 1985 and I was involved with KART from the beginning as a working student. KART provides services to two main programs: one with the school system, offering riding lessons and classroom instruction to students that either have an IP or are in special ed. The other program is Easter Seals Camp Fairlee, where adults and children with different disabilities have the opportunity to ride twice per week during their camp stay. Campers come from different states such as Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, [and] Virginia.”
Belperio said that KART offers lessons for students and the Board of Education provides transportation. “The students come to the farm for two hours, and do eight sessions in the spring and eight in fall. In those two hours we have three groups rotating, 40 minutes each, through barn management, classroom horse-related work, and one riding with another instructor and I. In the spring, we have a big horse show that culminates the program. We work with five schools, The
Christian Academy, the high school [Kent County], middle school [Kent County], and two elementary schools, Garnet and Worton.”
Belperio has noticed a specific benefit for those on the autism spectrum. “People say with autistic children, ‘let’s get them out of their bubble, and get them out in society.’ I think in a different way; we don’t need them to get out of the bubble. We use the horse to go inside the bubble, to see how they can work, how they can interact with others. They can interact with the horses better than with people. After we see how they can move in the bubble, we can move them forward, still doing what they want to do. I don’t like the concept of changing personalities; it’s adapting personalities,” said Belperio.
In his experience, Belperio has found that horses are “great partners” to help the kids on the autism spectrum. The students connect well to the horses. “Horses have a lot of cause-and-effect. When you have a 1,000-pound animal that turns when you pull your right rein, it’s learning cause-and-effect, and there is an interaction like there isn’t in school,” he said. “They also have to learn to follow directions, but on their own terms. With the horses, we can give the students time to process.”The program has “side-walkers” to make sure the students are safe, but Belperio said that riding helps the students learn in a more engaging, dramatic way.
“It helps the rider realize, ‘oh if I don’t pay attention, if I don’t follow directions, if I don’t think, I cannot give directions to my horse.’ They learn how to wait before they mount the horses and walk to the horse. Sometimes they also pick the side-walker they like, which teaches them to ask for help. They can follow the directions in their own time, but they are learning, and they can take that back in the classroom with things they don’t like as much.”
Belperio has found that learning with horses is an enjoyable activity that can teach children how to behave in school. “They like riding horses; it’s a huge motivator. If someone misbehaves, it takes one phrase, ‘I take you off the horse,’ and they stop right away. They learn that they can control their behavior, and they take that back in the classroom. When the children come to the farm, even with strong behavioral issues, 99 percent of the time, they behave perfectly.”
Many children even benefit physically. “The movement of the horse is like a massage, the horses move in certain ways, up-and-down, lateral, and forward-backward. For example, students with cerebral palsy are often very tight and weak in the legs and hips, and the movement of the horse mimics the feeling of walking. The riding strengthens the legs and hips, and can help them learn to walk. And the stirrups, especially in the jumping position, help strengthen the ankles and the soles of the feet. Also, they love the horse, and they may not be as willing to go to a physical therapist as much they are to ride a horse.”
Washington College students have volunteered at KART and Bridges, and Belperio encourages current students to get involved. “We love volunteers. I have a lot of fantastic retired volunteers, but we also love having younger ones. We are in the most need of helpers in the spring and fall sessions, and usually the classes are 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. on Wednesday and Thursday. And, mostly, during the summer session with Camp Fairlee riders, again on Wednesdays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to noon. We love the partnership with WC, and the students who have come, out of their own kindness, have been such a great asset to the community.”
KART provides a unique opportunity for WC students to give back to Kent County, through the innovative and meaningful work that is therapeutic horse riding. If you are interested in volunteering with KART, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 410-870-5596.