By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published February 9, 2006
Two weeks before last year’s first Chastain Chase road race, teenager Ashley Newman had only about 50 runners to participate in the event that she had conceived and planned to benefit the Chastain Horse Park’s Therapeutic Riding Program. This equestrian center brings the healing love of horse therapy to students with disabilities as well as children at risk.
Then an eighth-grader, Newman had been working on the event for months, clocking over 50 hours. She rented equipment from the Atlanta Track Club, sought advice from mothers who run at St. Jude the Apostle School from which she graduated, coordinated with police to close streets, obtained permits, and handled the many other details necessary to plan such a fundraiser. She did it to support the program for which she has volunteered for a year and a half, seeing the strength and sense of wellbeing that horseback riding brings to participants. Newman herself began riding at age 4.
Understandably, she was a little anxious about how many runners would register. But two days before the race a TV station ran a piece on it, and by race day over 120 runners showed up in force to participate.
“We had a really amazing turnout. It was great.”
While other teens go with the flow and cling to their peers, Newman is holding the reins and charting her own race course as she follows her passions and uses her gifts for running, community service and riding as the race director of the second annual Chastain Chase. This 15-year-old, straight-A student at Westminster School, who also runs track and cross country, is already discovering where her passion and the world’s deep needs meet.
She is looking for more sponsors and hopes this year to draw 500 entrants to the 5-K Road Race and 1-mile fun run, which will be held Saturday, Feb. 25. This year they’ll have Star 94 radio broadcasting, and live music. Some of her friends are serving as race leaders and are speaking at their schools about the race and therapeutic program. Her younger brother’s Boy Scout troop will set up cones and her mother, Anne Marie Newman, will man the awards table. And many of her schoolmates will run or volunteer.
Newman, a member of St. Jude the Apostle Church, was taking a lesson at Chastain one day when she began watching children in the therapeutic program and was touched by their enthusiasm and earnest efforts to ride. “I just fell in love with it. I’ve loved horses all my life. I love giving back to the community. In my family we do mission trips. It was such a great way to be with horses and helping people at the same time. They are so happy and joyful to be out here with the horses. It takes all their cares away.”
She recalled one girl who was riding her first pony, Dixie, which Newman donated to the program. The girl was jumping for the very first time. “I was so happy I could share that experience with her, and she could experience the thrill and love that I have for horseback riding,” she recalled. “It was amazing. She was just glowing afterwards.”
In a letter to potential sponsors for this year’s race, she wrote, “The most rewarding aspect of my volunteer work is seeing the incredible strength and determination in the riders. I love to see all of their hard work and the joy in their eyes each time they come to ride.”
Standing under the covered outdoor ring while her daughter helped in the barn, the teen’s mother proudly reported that last year’s race raised about $5,000. And her daughter was not the only one she cheered on. One therapeutic riding student named Brian Battles, who is mentally and physically disabled, had asked to race in his wheelchair for a mile. It was very moving as Battles “did one mile in a wheelchair and Ashley and her friends ran alongside him. He’s really got a strong spirit.”
Anne Marie Newman and her husband, Myron, have worked to instill a social consciousness in their children in the same way Ann Marie was raised, and they have taken them on mission trips to China, South Africa, Peru and Nicaragua. Ashley and her brother, Weston, had also collected thousands of dollars worth of sporting equipment and uniforms for Nicaraguan children served by the Amigos for Christ nonprofit organization, based in Buford. So she was pleased when her daughter asked her last year about planning the fun run for the horse park, like the one held at St. Jude’s School. Ashley had designed a rubber bracelet reading “walk, trot, canter” to benefit the program but wanted to do more when she asked her mother, “What about a fun run?” “I said yes, having no idea what she was taking on. Part of it is ‘ignorance is bliss.’ When the Holy Spirit wants you to do something all the people get put into place,” she said. “It’s nice to see her so passionate about it. Because of volunteering she has a better appreciation of the needs of other people’s struggles. She does use her gifts and talents for God’s glory. That’s why she’s so blessed.”
The city-owned horse park in Buckhead had originally opened in 1939 and was once a thriving center until eventually closing in 1996. In 1997 Atlanta native Amy Lance received approval to reopen with a 20-year lease, and she rebuilt the facility on the 13-acre site as an equestrian center dedicated to serving students with mental and physical disabilities and children at-risk through educational and therapeutic riding programs, while also offering lessons and horse boarding for the general public. The therapeutic program has about 125 weekly students and gives over 4,000 lessons annually for special needs students. The program passed an accreditation process in 2001 to be rated a North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA) Premier Center. There are a total of four barns and 86 stalls.
On this cloudy afternoon Newman, her long sandy blond hair tied at her neck in a pony tail, shed her pink tennis shoes for her jodhpurs and paddock boots and helped Battles and another student, a young boy, to saddle up and head out for a lesson together in the cool winter air in the covered ring atop a little hill amidst the bare trees. In the ring the poised, mature girl jogged alongside the boy atop an off-white quarter horse, as the shaggy-haired, helmet-clad youth squeezed the horse’s sides, gripped the mane, lifted his body out of the saddle into the two-point position and squeezed his legs to his side to command “Trot!”—his favorite part.
Following the direction of Pam Smith, a certified therapeutic riding instructor the young boy then shifted to posting trot, pushing his heels down in the stirrups and holding his shoulders back. “Up, down, up, down. Good job! Let’s mix it up, another posting from H to K and two point from S to L.” He then sat tall and pulled back the reins to walk, then stop, proclaiming, “Whoa! Stop. Walk on.” On the other side of the ring, Battles also trotted and practiced lifting his hands up and stretching them towards his horse’s tail.
After the lesson, the boy’s horse was tied in the center aisle of the barn, which was filled with the smell of fresh hay, and Newman helped the student take off the horse’s saddle and brush him.
Outside, Battles’ mother, Lorraine, who volunteers with the program doing office work, waited in the car for her son, who was all smiles after his weekly lesson. He confessed shyly, yet with a little smile, his favorite part of the program. “This is so good because I like all the girls so much.”
Also a member of St. Jude the Apostle Church, Battles plays guitar and sings at their Mass for persons with disabilities. That day he rode a horse named Chief. “I like Chief so much. I tell Chief to keep his mouth shut as last week Chief tried to (nibble at) the instructor,” he recalled. He said riding makes him stronger and that he is able to take the saddle and rainbow reins off by himself.
Battles has been riding for 20 years. His mother said the program’s founder, Lance, has done a “fantastic job” since starting the current therapeutic program and the “instructors and volunteers are just fantastic. They encourage him.” Her son is in remission from leukemia and became brain damaged during treatment. Riding has helped him to become stronger and more confident emotionally as well as physically.
“He can’t participate in other sports and this is something he can do,” she said. “It really helps with coordination, balance and strengthening his heel cords.”
As Anne Marie Newman walked over, Lorraine Battles commended Ashley’s service, where she responded that “it gives her a lot of joy and keeps her out of trouble—it’s better than the mall.”
Back in the barn the younger Newman stroked the face of her beloved Dixie as the pony stretched her neck forward. She helped another woman, who rides to improve coordination and balance, to saddle her up. Newman loves how horses are very sensitive to their rider’s mood and skills and said that Dixie, a grayish white Appaloosa speckled with tan and grey spots, naturally shortens her stride as needed for beginning riders. The youth recalled how, when she had a bad day, Dixie would always comfort her.
“Horses are such amazing animals and feel what you feel,” she said. “They’re just always there and will love you no matter what.”
But as Newman can jump nearly three feet now, she believes that Dixie at age 16 is happy now to be in the therapeutic program and to have the “nice, relaxing change from old lesson days.” She then visited the horse a few stalls down, whom she now leases, named Hardy, a chestnut with a white blaze and mighty presence at 18 hands tall, who in his heyday was a grand prix jumper clearing six feet. Hardy suspiciously eyed unfamiliar visitors as the girl rubbed his velvety nose.
She experiences deep satisfaction from volunteering with the horse program. Through volunteering she is able to focus less on the latest fashions and gadgets and more on each person’s dignity. “It’s a more wholesome feeling. It fills my heart.”
And participating in mission trips has given her a healthy sense of perspective and profound conviction that to whom much is given, much is required.
“It just shows me how truly blessed I am to live in such an amazing country and to be able to go to school and have all the necessities and be able to ride horses which is such a blessing and an amazing sport and I love to do it. If I (were) in many other countries I wouldn’t be able to do a lot I do here,” she said. “We live in such a materialistic world that sometimes you need to take a break from all that and look at what’s really important and what really matters in life. It just makes me want to give back even more and become more involved in my community.”
Her mother is her role model for community service. “She instilled such a strong faith in me and showed me what’s really important. She encourages me and supports me.”
And together they established in 2003 an Atlanta chapter of the National Charity League, a mother-daughter service organization, and serve as local presidents. The one stipulation was that Ashley had to handle the computers, as “I wasn’t even doing the e-mail back then,” said Anne Marie with a laugh. It’s grown from 10 mothers and daughters to 150 and focuses on community, service, education and leadership while building the mother-daughter relationship at a time when “we’re not always the most fun person to be with.”
She likes how her daughter has developed leadership skills. “It’s fun to see her take the responsibility and ownership and seeing the joy and excitement when she sees progress.” Her daughter has visited other community races to study how they’re run and reported that one only had several hundred people after nearly two decades. “She’s like ‘Mom, the Chastain Chase is going to have thousands of people in 18 years.’ It’s fun to see her watching it grow.”
The teen said that it’s a little harder this year to work on the race in between homework, track practice and the “busyness” of high school but “I have a base. Half the thing is getting sponsors and following up with them and getting runners to come and advertising.”
Development director Kathy Farrington is working with Newman and said that she truly “is spearheading the whole effort.” Executive director Mandy Branton, RN, praised the ninth-grader for her generosity and how she “goes above and beyond in so many ways” in directing the race, assisting with lessons and at their therapeutic horse show. And Dixie is the most requested horse in the barn.
“She is just a shining example of what a young woman should be. She gives of herself helping to organize this type of event. It’s hard work and a daily challenge for any nonprofit to raise money,” Branton said. “For her to do this for us is just an amazing gift for us. … The fundraising is really a challenge, and this provides a great introduction to the horse park for those not familiar with it and on the benefits to the riders. About a third of our riders are on scholarships, so it definitely helps out.”
The horse park also serves inner-city and at-risk children by helping them develop listening and discipline skills, responsibility, self-esteem and a sense of achievement. The therapeutic students have all types of conditions, ranging from depression and mental retardation to multiple sclerosis, blindness and hearing impairments. Riding can improve balance and coordination, muscle strength and flexibility and in certain wheelchair-bound students can stimulate nerves in their legs, as the horse’s walking gait most closely emulates the human walking gait. When a person is astride, the horse’s motion shifts the rider side to side, tilts the trunk to the front and back and gently rotates the rider’s pelvis.
Branton said that riding enables some students to walk through the exercises they receive through riding, and some very young children with developmental disabilities don’t respond well in a clinic environment but find that “it’s fun to do sit-ups when you’re on a horse.”
The Shepherd Spinal Center sometimes brings over patients, and recently the staff brought over a boy paralyzed in his legs from a spinal cord injury who experienced emotional release.
“He could walk and trot on a horse despite his injuries. He was raising his hands in the air and yelling ‘whoopee.’ When you realize you’re making a difference in something like that it is so important.”
Branton knows firsthand the healing love of horse therapy, as she rode during her adolescence when, for four years, she wore a back brace to treat scoliosis. The graceful sport helped to strengthen her back muscles and self-confidence.
“I know intimately what it is like to feel and look different,” she said. Riding “allowed me to feel like I was athletic at a time when I had no control over what was going on with my body and it really felt like it was betraying me. … It was just a bright spot to what otherwise would have been really challenging to deal with as a teenage girl dealing with a big, old, bulky back brace.”
She had been working in nursing administration and became involved with NARHA on the national level, when the job opening came about at Chastain.
“I feel like God has allowed me to have a fulfilling career at a wonderful place (where I can) give back for what I experienced being around horses myself.”
Newman also views this service as a blessed opportunity and will run again this race set before her for the students in this year’s Chastain Chase. She said that God has “given me all these talents and blessings so that I can use them, and I just want to use them for his will and to give back and thank him. And by thanking him I’m helping the community and just trying to follow in his footsteps.”