With arms outstretched and a smile on her face, 10-year-old Julia Kelly focused on staying in the saddle atop Kattie, a horse she was riding over the weekend at the Huntington Central Park Equestrian Center.
Riding without holding the reins is a feat Julia, who has Down syndrome, learned while taking classes at the Therapeutic Riding Center of Huntington Beach, a nonprofit that has provided therapy to children with physical and developmental disabilities through equine activities since 1990.
The Therapeutic Riding Center on Saturday will host its sixth annual Derby Day fundraiser featuring a hat-decorating contest, a silent auction, Clydesdales, children's activities and equestrian performances.
There are about 40 students registered for the event and more spots are available.
Denine Kelly, 51, of Huntington Beach, has been taking one-hour lessons at the riding center on Saturday mornings with Julia for about 3 1/2 years.
"When she was younger, she didn't respond as well to directions, but as she got older and does this more and more, she listens and follows directions better," said Denine Kelly. "That's where she's made the biggest growth — her ability to listen, to do what's asked of her and to be much more independent."
With every passing lesson, Julia learned to follow her instructor's orders, balance in the saddle and develop an ever-growing affinity for horses, Denine said.
During a recent lesson, Julia maintained her balance as Kattie, a 22-year-old American Saddlebred mix, was led by a volunteer around the arena. Continuing to smile and laugh, the youngster was told to place her arms in front of her, behind her and to her sides.
"She loves all animals, but there's something special between her and horses because they're such large animals," she said. "When she first started, even though she loved them, she was very intimidated by them. Now it's almost the opposite. She'll just walk up to any horse and start petting it."
Donna Brandt, board president and head instructor at the Therapeutic Riding Center, said those teaching the program have to be certified by the Professional Assn. of Therapeutic Horsemanship International, an organization that teaches instructors how to effectively use horseback riding as a form of therapy.
"A lot of people think that we just come out and do pony rides, but we actually have to know about various disabilities the children may have," she said.
Brandt became involved with the riding center about 15 years ago when she brought her then 8-year-old daughter, Jamie, to receive lessons. Jamie is developmentally delayed and autistic.
Brandt said her daughter is now able to lead the horses out the their stables and take them for long walks.
"She's become super-independent, and it brings her a lot of joy," she said.
Despite the windy day at the center and her tousled hair, Julia's smile never went away, and she hugged the volunteers after dismounting Kattie.
"It's a great program, and the volunteers are great," Denine Kelly said. "The fact that they come and do this every week and don't get paid, and do this so that our kids can ride, I give props to them for that."
IF YOU GO
Who: Therapeutic Rider Center of Huntington Beach
What: Derby Day Fundraiser
When: 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday
Where: Huntington Central Park Equestrian Center, 18381 Goldenwest St.
Cost: $15 for adults, $10 for children, age 3 and younger are free