When Lauren Reischer was 5 years old, stiffness on the right side of her body caused by cerebral palsy made it impossible for her to open her fist. She persevered through countless hours of occupational and physical therapy every week, motivated by her desire to hold something very important.
Ms. Reischer, now 18, had her hands on the reins two weeks ago as she piloted a chestnut gelding named Ollie around the indoor riding ring at Laurel Crown Farms in East Quogue. With a squeeze of her legs, she nudged him into a canter and set her sights on a long pole lying on the dirt between two jump standards.
Ollie and Ms. Reischer made their way over the first pole and, six strides later, hopped over another, all under the watchful eye of trainer Laura Beth Strong.
The only sign of challenge that is evident when watching Ms. Reischer ride is the moment she gets on: She requires a bit of assistance swinging her legs into position in the saddle and getting her feet in the stirrups. From that point on, she looks exactly like all of the other accomplished riders at the well-respected show barn—tall and confident in the saddle.
And that is part of why Ms. Reischer loves riding.
“It’s a recreational outlet where I can experience all the freedom and independence that I wouldn’t be able to experience on the ground due to my disability,” she said. “So, in addition to the immense physical benefits, the emotional ones are much greater.”
Ms. Reischer and her family—which includes her parents, Sol and Mary Reischer—split their time between New York City and East Quogue, where they own a home adjacent to the farm. Lauren Reischer is currently a senior at the Dalton School in Manhattan and has been accepted to several prestigious colleges, including Ivy League Brown University, as well as Williams College and Wesleyan University.
Both her intelligence and self-confidence are immediately apparent when she speaks, and she conveys a maturity not commonly found in teenagers, particularly when discussing cerebral palsy and how a passion for horses and riding has reshaped the way her disability affects her life.
“When you’re a kid in New York City with a disability, independence is something central to friendship-growing,” she explained. “Living in the city, by time you’re 13 years old, you’re going places on your own, taking the subway with your friends—I couldn’t do that when I was 13.”
She said the relationships she’s developed with both the animals and humans at the barn have been a big part of her life.
“Riding, and the camaraderie that comes with riding—and the kinds of partnerships and sportsmanship you build with the horse and your trainer—that’s something I could never experience when, for example, all my friends wanted to go ice skating in Central Park, or when we were playing field hockey in P.E.,” Ms. Reischer said. “I’ve always loved horses and loved animals in general, and it was something I felt proud of, and I feel good at it.
“It’s great when you can get onto a horse and say, Look, I’m connecting with this horse, and it has its own mind—it doesn’t have to listen to me,” she continued. “But we’ve developed a relationship where I can be in control, and it’s like an extension of my body and my legs.”
Getting to a place of mutual respect and trust between horse and rider takes time and patience, as any rider can attest. And the extra work Ms. Reischer has done just to get in the saddle in the first place is even more impressive.
The odds might have been long for Ms. Reischer developing into an accomplished equestrian, but riding is physical therapy of the best kind, she said, because it never feels like work.
Ms. Reischer explained how riding is particularly beneficial for someone with cerebral palsy, saying that when she was born, her brain recognized her legs as one, not two, which meant she could never crawl and had more of a “bunny hop” than a walk. She had her hips replaced when she was 3 because stiffness in her body was pushing her femurs out of the hip sockets.
“To sit on a horse does so much for my hips,” she said. “When you canter, for example, your body has to roll with the horse, so it really loosens them up and works on my lower back.”
She added that riding has greatly increased her core strength and balance as well, and has made her lower legs in particular much stronger, since riders use them to guide and communicate with the horse. Riding also helps Ms. Reischer stretch her very tight heel cords, and she wears braces in her boots to help with that effort.
Ms. Reischer also has a lot of support in the form of her equine partner, Ollie, whose show name is, appropriately, “Opportunity Knocks.” The pair have come a long way since they first teamed up more than two years ago. The chestnut-and-white gelding looked ready to nod off to sleep after their recent riding lesson was over, resting his head in the hands of Ms. Reischer’s father, with a drowsy look in his eyes—one of which is a beguiling half-blue.
It took a lot to get to that point, though. Ms. Reischer recalled how Ollie was afraid of her crutches initially, not wanting to go anywhere near them, possibly because he was abused in the past before he was brought to Laurel Crown as a rescue horse, and saw them as something else.
In short order, however, they were bringing home tri-color ribbons from the Hampton Classic, winning champion in the Long Island Horse Show Series for Riders with Disabilities finale, held at the Classic each year. She’s been champion there the last two years, and last summer she swept the blue ribbon in every class in her division aboard Ollie.
“Over time, we’ve grown so much,” Ms. Reischer said of her relationship with Ollie, her eyes lighting up when asked to talk about him. “Not only is he no longer afraid of my crutches, now he tries to eat them! And I think he understands that I have a disability. If I make a mistake, he’ll stop right away if he feels like I’m off balance.”
Ms. Strong said she likes what she sees in the relationship between Ms. Reischer and Ollie.
“I believe that the horse sees her without the stigma that human nature would assign to a girl with crutches walking up to them, and Lauren responds to that,” she said. “This is the fundamental basis of the trust that needed in all relationships, and especially in a healthy one between horse and rider.”
As much as riding and being part of the Laurel Crown family has enriched Ms. Reischer’s life, Ms. Strong said the feeling is mutual.
“Her amazing outlook and magnetic personality engages all of us around her,” she said. “She is often early and stays late to support her friends at the barn and at horse shows. At the Hampton Classic, her classes are on Monday, and the only event going on, and we have more interest from other students and parents when she’s showing, so they can come and support her, than any other client.
“It is important to note that this isn’t because she has a disability—it’s because she’s a part of our team as much as anyone else,” she continued. “Her magnetic personality attracts them to want to be a part of something special.”
Like every other client at the barn, Ms. Reischer has a goal she’s working toward—in her case, it’s completing a full show course, riding over a series of six or more jumps in a particular order.
Ms. Strong is confidant that Ms. Reischer can do it.
“Learning to ride is meant to emulate life,” Ms. Strong said. “Getting back on when you fall off, finding the right partner to succeed with, setting goals and measuring your progress. In all of these areas, Lauren has a great grasp.”