By Samantha Joseph
MARTIN COUNTY - Ten-year-old Ashley Branker holds tentatively to the reigns of the great Appalachian that has become her weekly companion.
For the last two months, the girl has been part of a program by ARC of Martin County, which uses horseback riding as a tool to teach children with disabilities to develop emotionally and improve muscle strength.
"The biggest thing is their confidence. It really amazes them that a teeny 50-pound person can control a 1,000-pound animal," said Linda Sistarelli, owner of Sunny Time Stables, which offers the riding program to the nonprofit.
"The kids are amazing because you get to see how much they grow. In the beginning, a lot of them need to have someone there holding them up, leading them along, but pretty soon they're up there all by themselves," Ms. Sistarelli said.
"A lot of kids come in and they can't even look you in the eye. But give them a couple of weeks, they're hanging all over you begging for their horse."
That was the case with Ashley, who suffers from scoliosis, or abnormal curving of the spine, and Rhett syndrome, a nervous system disorder that leads to developmental reversals, especially in language and hand use.
"She's nonverbal, but her eyes just light up when she's around the horses, and she smiles, too," said Jessica Barber, acting director of youth and family services for ARC of Martin County.
"The kids definitely love the horses. It's relaxing for them, helps calm them down, helps some of those with behavioral issues and teaches them new skills."
One of the stars of the program is Noble, a thoroughbred that was once emaciated and facing death before the Palm City stables rescued him at the end of his racing career.
Last year, Noble was nearly 300 pounds underweight, had a mouth full of wrecked teeth and gums, needed patient training, a healthy diet and months of rehab.
He was one of 13 rescued former race horses at Sunny Time Stables that now work with children and elderly riders.
"This horse is amazing. I can put a little 5-year-old on him and he'll go slowly and be really gentle," Ms. Sistarelli said. "I can't believe anyone ever mistreated him."