Crowning Glory

Therapeutic Horseback Riding Leads Kennedy Krieger Patient to A Golden Opportunity

Erin StrevigOnce a week, 19-year-old Erin Strevig can be found riding horses near her home in Westminster. Born with a rare genetic condition known as Williams syndrome, she has difficulty doing many of the things that typically developing teenagers can do with ease, such as walking and talking. But in horseback riding, Erin has found her passion and talent, so much talent, in fact, that this summer, she will compete in the 11th Special Olympics World Summer Games in Ireland.

Every year since she was 8 years old, Erin has participated in the equestrian event of both the state and county Special Olympics, winning the coveted gold medal more than a dozen times. As a 2002 Special Olympics Maryland gold medallist, her name was placed in a lottery for the World Games. As her luck would have it, her name was drawn. "Erin has always participated in the equestrian event in the Maryland Summer Games, but she has never gone to World. This is a big deal for her," Mrs. Barrett says.

Erin has participated in therapeutic riding through the 4-H Therapeutic Riding Program of Carroll County every spring and fall for the past 14 years, to learn specific riding skills and to treat her tight, rigid muscles. The benefits of therapeutic riding are similar to that of physical and occupational therapies and other forms of therapy. Through the variable, rhythmic and repetitive cadence of a horse's walk, which simulates aspects of human gait, Erin's balance, posture, mobility, strength, endurance and function can be improved. Additionally, her muscles are relaxed by a horse's motion and warmth. "Erin's heel cords would get tight, and she would walk on her toes. She also would get really tight in her knees and elbows," says her mother, Karen Barrett.

Erin's physical limitations stem from a condition known as Williams syndrome, which also causes chronic headaches, developmental delay and heart problems. At 2 years old, she was referred by her physician to Kennedy Krieger Institute, which is internationally recognized for evaluation, treatment and research of pediatric developmental disabilities. After a series of assessment tests, Erin was diagnosed with the genetic condition. She also was later diagnosed with chronic seizure disorders.

During the past several years, Erin has received occupational and physical therapies at Kennedy Krieger to help strengthen her gross and fine motor skills. She also has received treatment for her seizure disorders at the Institute. "There was a time when she was having five or six seizures a day. They were disrupting life completely," Mrs. Barrett recalls. William Trescher, M.D., medical director of Neurology and Clinical Neurophysiology at Kennedy Krieger, treated Erin's condition with intensive medication therapy. "We got the seizures under control with medications, which also helped with other problems," he says.

Erin's episodes are now less frequent, allowing her the freedom to do what she enjoys most: riding horses. For many individuals, such as Erin, therapeutic riding is entertaining and empowering. "I enjoy going outside and riding," she says. "I can get up on the horse by myself. Riding is something that I'm good at."

The Summer Games, which will be held from June 16 - 29 in Dublin, will be the first time the event is held outside of the United States. Erin is excited about traveling abroad and being one of 7,000 international athletes participating in the games. "I'm looking forward to having fun, getting blue ribbons and meeting people from other countries," she says. "I'm glad that I have been chosen to compete in this special event and represent the United States."

Despite Erin's disabilities, she has the courage and willpower to follow her dreams. She is proof that perseverance and a positive attitude can take you far.