JACKSON, Wyo. — Clad in crisp jeans, a white button-down and a stars-and-stripes helmet, 18-year-old Sam Drueding kept one hand on the reins and one on the American flag as his horse paced the Melody Ranch polo field.
Flanked by two servicemen and several trainers, Drueding, who has suffered from seizures most his life, completed the rectangular pattern as "The Star-Spangled Banner" played in the background, officially kicking off the 10th annual Stomping the Divots fundraiser for the Jackson Hole Therapeutic Riding Association recently.
Drueding's mother, Valerie Lee, of Pinedale, said her son has battled physical and mental disabilities from the saddle. He has been riding for several years at the C-Bar-V Ranch, an educational center for physically and emotionally disabled children. She's a believer in the power of horses in the brain and body's fight against disabilities.
"Sam has a friend with horses," she said. "The unspoken words between them go a long way for a child who is rather alone with his story." Donna Johnsen, the therapeutic riding association's program director, said she sees a noticeable change in Drueding's demeanor every time he gets on a horse, as well as evidence of the common physical improvements of therapeutic riding.
"He's often stiff when first getting on," Johnsen said.
"But within 10 to 15 minutes, his body relaxes. The horse's movement works and strengthens the leg muscles we use to walk. We also see improvement in trunk control and core strength." Five young riders participated in the official demonstration, which focused on the role of developmental vaulting — moving around on the horse — in therapeutic riding. Riders loosened up in the saddle while trainers led the horses in a circular march, gradually coaxing them into their own individual trots. When the horses slowed and reformed the circle, their riders performed acrobatic feats, propping themselves up on elbows and bringing themselves into a full standing position.
Johnsen said vaulting reflects adaptation within the program's philosophy.
"We change our goals to bring out the best in our riders," she said. "Vaulting improves fine and gross motor skills, flexibility and coordination. And what vaulting does for our riders' self-confidence and self-esteem is immeasurable." But Stomping the Divots was much more than displays of therapy from the saddle. A silent auction was conducted before dinner with an "instant winner" option for anyone willing to bid a set price on the spot, followed by a polo match between members of the Jackson Hole Polo Club.
During halftime, guests cleared the tents, filing onto the huge polo field, drinks in hand, and smoothed over the field's rough spots as per the event's name.
A live auction and several hours of dance-friendly melodies from the Richard Brown Orchestra followed the surf-and-turf dinner from Rendezvous Bistro.
In an emotional ceremony, event organizers also presented a young girl from the C-Bar-V Ranch with the Rider of the Year award. Whitney Goodrum was recognized as the association's Volunteer of the Year, and Barbara Gentry as the winner of the event's hat contest.
"People are always amazed by how much our riders can do and how much they enjoy it," said Kelly Merriott, executive director of the therapeutic riding association. "It's great to see people leaving and hear them say, 'I had a great evening, and what y'all do is amazing.'"
Information from: Jackson Hole (Wyo.) News And Guide, http://www.jhnewsandguide.com