ORINDA -- Some children with disabilities receive physical therapy within the walls of specialized clinics, with therapists helping work weak or stiff muscles and improving mobility.

At Orinda's Xenophon Riding Center, therapy happens on the back of a horse.

"Once you get on (a horse), there are physical and mental benefits," says Judy Lazarus, who founded the nonprofit therapeutic riding center two decades ago. "It's really almost miraculous."

The Orinda resident was witness to her share of wondrous moments during the time she helmed what is still the only nationally accredited nonprofit therapeutic riding center in the East Bay serving children with physical disabilities.

One little girl's breakthrough came when she was able to gain control of her horse and stop it from snacking on some grass.

Another little boy with autism spoke his first words when he told his horse to keep walking.

"There were a lot of tears that day," Lazarus recalls. "Tears of joy."

Now retired from her job as executive director but serving on Xenophon's board, the 71-year-old still finds time to visit the center where children with disabilities such as cerebral palsy and autism ride horses in a covered arena or navigate a "sensory trail" accompanied by a physical therapist and other support team members.

Some children are there for therapeutic riding, during which they learn how to direct and control one of the center's Morgan, Arabian or quarter horses.

Others receive hippotherapy, in which physical, occupational or speech therapists use a horse as an important part of the treatment.

But although such therapeutic programs may be familiar to horse lovers, they continue to be relatively unknown outside of the equestrian world.

"They are still so new," says Tineke Jacobsen, a lifelong horse enthusiast and physical therapist who began volunteering at Xenophon more than 15 years ago. Although quite a few therapeutic riding centers exist today, hippotherapy is still quite rare, Jacobsen says.

Judy Lazarus, of Orinda, founder of Xenophon Riding Center is photographed with Kiwi, one of the horses at the center in Orinda, Calif., on Monday, Sept.
Judy Lazarus, of Orinda, founder of Xenophon Riding Center is photographed with Kiwi, one of the horses at the center in Orinda, Calif., on Monday, Sept. 23, 2013. Xenophon allows disabled children to improve flexibility, balance, posture and muscle strength by riding on horseback. Kiwi is short for Kiwanis, which is the organization that donated funds to buy Kiwi for the program. (Susan Tripp Pollard/Bay Area News Group) ( SUSAN TRIPP POLLARD )

It was rarer still when Lazarus founded Xenophon after a stint volunteering at a therapeutic riding program in San Ramon as she pursued a master's degree in counseling.

"I realized the benefit it had for the kids," says Lazarus, whose love affair with horses began during childhood. "We didn't have anything up here."

Inspired by the experience, Lazarus changed her focus from seeing patients in an office to "counseling on horseback." Having a son with autism provided additional impetus.

"I'd been involved in the (disabled) community for a long time with teaching," Lazarus says. "It just seemed to make sense to go in that direction."

So in 1993, Lazarus took the plunge and started the program at Black Point Farm in Martinez with one horse, two children and almost no money. Three years later, Lazarus began leasing the PG&E-owned property where Xenophon is located today.

Lazarus says it took about a year to clean up the land, rehab a barn and take down expanses of barbed wire.

But the hard work paid off. Xenophon -- named after a Greek general who penned the first book on horsemanship -- now had room to grow.

Today, the center offers a year-round program to about 50 students who come from all over the Bay Area each week. Their parents have learned about the program through word-of-mouth.

That's how Linda Gardner found Xenophon, and her daughter Alva participated in the program for more than a decade.

During her time working with Judy and the other Xenophon therapists and staffers, Alva Gardner learned to stand on the back of a horse, ride backward and dismount with a somersault -- all with assistance. When she grew older and taller, she transitioned to dressage, an elegant form of horse training.

"It was really supporting her positive sense of herself as someone who can do things, can accomplish things and is part of the larger community and larger world," Gardner says.

The benefits were just as rich for Sherry Novick's 22-year-old daughter Natalie, who at age 4 began working with Lazarus on mobility issues.

"The very first time we went to this program, Judy took her by the hand and just started talking with her," Novick recalls. "There was something about the respect that she had for my daughter as a human being. Judy didn't talk down to her like a little girl, or treat her different because of a disability. It was as though she entered another world. It was just so magical."

In addition to strengthening Natalie's core, riding boosted her confidence. "It absolutely made her feel more comfortable with herself and her capacity physically," her mother says.

These days, Lazarus no longer rides regularly, but she did get on a horse recently -- with a little help. And while the ride was brief, Lazarus says being on horseback still had the same incredible effect.

"I've always thought that if you've got problems and you go get on your horse, it all just goes away," she said. "It does that even more so for our students. It just gives them a wonderful feeling that discounts all the disabilities they have."

Contact Jennifer Modenessi at 925-943-8378 or at jmodenessi@bayareanewsgroup.com.

JUDY LAZARUS
Age: 71
Hometown: Orinda
Claim to fame: Founder of Xenophon Riding Center, which provides therapeutic riding and hippotherapy to more than 50 children with disabilities per week
Quote: "The horse accepts (the children) for who they are. The horse is a great motivator."
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