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Mighty Oaks and Little Peanuts

by Janet Nesler | Ohio Magazine


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The farm of Gary and Marge Johnson becomes a thrilling place for handicapped and special need children every Thursday evening. You will find them in the riding arena on horseback with a smile on their face. The program in which they are participating is called MIGHTY OAKS AND LITTLE PEANUTS (MOLP) and is a Therapeutic Riding Academy located in Wheelersburg, Ohio.

MOLP started in 1994 after the Johnson's had retired and were sitting in front of their TV trying to decide what to do with a 200 acre farm.

"We wanted to share the land in some way and let others enjoy it," said Marge Johnson. "I asked my husband how he would like to start a Therapeutic Riding Academy and before I could say another word he told me he was just about to ask me the same question. We
thought of the special needs people and went down to see our Pastor Dick North at the Sciotoville United Methodist Church.

The church backed us financially and with volunteers the first year. They still back us; we try to keep it a christian atmosphere." The Johnsons' plans fot in neatly with the church's vision.
"We are known as a Vision 2000 church," North said. "That means we have been projecting ahead to the year 2000 as to what we want to become. Our emphasis has been in developing new ministries.

"When the Johnsons came to us with the idea of MOLP there was an immediate agreement between us that this would be a fantastic expansion of the vision of this church.

"My immediate feeling was one of excitement, joy and anticipation and it just seemed right. It began to develop very quickly from there and everything just seemed to fit. The excitement generated in the church has been just a wonderful thing."

Therapeutic riding uses equine©oriented actives for the purpose of contributing positively to the physical, emotional and social well©being of people with disabilities. Therapeutic riding can
give benefits in areas of sport and recreation and also education.

Most of the children who come to MOLP have muscular handicaps such as Cerebral Palsy and riding the horses helps strengthen their muscles. Their legs move as the horse walks and the
movement with the warmth of the horses body helps the muscles of the child to relax.

"We try to teach the children to ride a horse even through they are handicapped," said Johnson. "We notice it helps them to concentrate and to do things in sequence and recall commands.
They do warm©up exercises on horseback and play games like egg and spoon. It gets them out doing something they never thought they could do."

The North American Riding Therapy Assoc. of which MOLP is affiliated has 500 operating centers nationally. It was started in Europe in 1959 and started operating in the United States in

MOLP is the only academy in Ohio and started with 5 children and 3 horses in 1994. This year they have 11 children and 7 horses, 4 of these horses were donated. They also have a black pot bellied pig who thinks she is a dog as she strolls around delighting all the children.

"People from the community volunteer, people who don't even have a handicapped child. The parents will do anything we ask them to do." said Johnson. "This would never have gotten off the ground without the volunteers. They come from Minford, Franklin Furnace, Sciotoville and even as far away as Ironton."

The riding instructors are also volunteer and are being certified at the present time through North American Riding Therapy Assoc.(NORTA.)

"All volunteers and instructors get such a blessing out of their efforts," said Riding Instructor Penny Book. "You can just look at those kids faces and you get so much more out of it than you put into it. They keep us young and they can also correct us when we're wrong and show us how to slow down. They can feel the power of the horse and the wind in their face...things we take for granted. So they make us stop and smell the roses."

Riding Instructors Kelly Deborde and Christy Wilcox feel blessed in the same way as they work with the children.

Volunteer Tony Sherman, from Sciotoville said, "When I started last year I really didn't know what it was all about. I just came out because I knew Gary and Marge Johnson, but I kept coming because of what I get from the kids. You get so much more than you give and I have developed a friendship with a lot of the kids and when I don't get to come I really miss it."

Volunteer Diane Ball from Ironton is a college student at Ohio University Southern Campus and is doing an internship at MOLP. "I am in the Introduction to Economics Program and last year a
friend did an internship at MOLP and was telling me how great it was," said Ball. "I gave the Johnsons a call and asked to do the internship. I will probably come back next year too just to
volunteer. I love working with these kids. They want to learn so much and are so cooperative. I get much more than I give."

Teresa Brown, mother of student rider, Jamie Peach said, "Jamie just started this year. She always had an attraction to horses so she is really excited about it. Last week she had stable
management and she got to brush and spray the horses. Riding has helped her a lot and I can notice a difference in her posture. She sits up so straight when she rides."

Amy Nelson, who has Cerebral Palsy, has been riding for two years and is very excited about it. Last year Amy was nominated for Special Education Student of the Year and was honored in May at Carter Caves. She gave a speech on How Education Would Unlock the Future to 80 school superintendents and received a standing ovation. She received the R.A. Horn Award in Columbus for winning Special Education Student of the year and gave the same speech
there. Amy is 14 years old. "Even though Amy had accomplished so much, she had always been afraid of animals," said Amy's father Fred Nelson. "She has been at arms length with the cat and dog in our home and we were afraid something the size of a horse would overwhelm her. We talked her into coming out to visit and one of her friends who has ridden for several years climbed on a horse and waved at Amy and smiled. She looked at me and said Daddy I believe I can do that, so she put her fears aside and really enjoys it now."

When asked how she liked to ride, Amy smiled and said, "It's very relaxing and I think all people should try it."

Nelson gives credit to the volunteers who assured Amy they would take care of her. "That's what really makes this work," said Nelson. "Another thing that has made this academy work is the kind of love and relationship of the Methodist church, because you couldn't even pay people to do the kind of work they are doing here."

D.J. Wise, has been riding since the beginning of this season. "It's great for his self esteem," said D.J.'s mother, Donna Wise. "We've noticed his back seems to be getting stronger and his feet
more relaxed. He has also made a lot of friends here and that's wonderful."

Ricardo Nelson & George Lowery from Portsmouth, are cousins and are not physically handicapped but are special need children who love to ride horses and the horse named Country is their favorite.

In July 1996, MOLP was featured on WSAZ TV on the program HOMETOWN HEROES. This was a time when the kids got the chance to show some of the riding skills they had learned.

"We try to have two big events a year for fund raisers and we rely the rest just on donations from various service groups or private citizens," said Johnson.

One of the fund raising events is a 4th of July picnic and a celebration of the accomplishments of the students. During the afternoon they each get to ride and then a silent auction is held
around a table of donated items. This year was the second celebration held.The other yearly fund raiser is a Christmas party and program held at the Methodist church. All student riders and their families are invited as special guests. A wooden horse with saddle bags on it was placed up front and after the program people came forward and put money into the saddle bags. Then a tree was decorated and gifts were given to all the studentriders.

"Looking to the future we are working to have an indoor riding arena," said Johnson. "Right now we are limited by the weather because we can only get five months in. If we get the indoor
arena we can go year round. We are also trying to get some grants and if we do we might get more special needs children from schools or Physical Education type programs."

"Volunteers are always needed, to help with activities or fund raising and publicity. We need horses and ponies, doanated preferably, 50" to 55" in size, well broke. They will receive
special training to help with the disabled. We are also accepting new students. Anyone who would like to volunteer, enroll or make an appointment to view the facility can call (614) 776 7757 or write to Marge Johnson, Program manager, MOLP 930 Mead McNeer Road, Wheelersburg, Ohio 45662. There is no charge to ride so the program survives strictly on donations. It's a people topeople program."


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