The Greater New Orleans Therapeutic Riding Center in LaPlace offers equestrian activities for people with physical, developmental and emotional disabilities or special needs.

Founded by Anita Hartzell Hefler more than 20 years ago, GNOTRC serves individuals from the Greater New Orleans area and the River Parishes providing fun, camaraderie and a therapeutic riding experience for children and adults with varying disabilities such as: muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, visual impairment, Down syndrome, mental retardation, autism, multiple sclerosis, spina bifida, emotional, brain and spinal cord injuries, amputations, learning disabilities, attention deficit disorders, deafness, cardiovascular, accident/stroke, etc.

Through Hefler’s vision, inspiration and determination, GNOTRC has helped numerous riders.

One success story involves rider Mandy Vicknair, 32, of Paulina. Vicknair was born with spina bifida and uses a wheelchair. She began riding at GNOTRC three years ago and just blossomed.

Therapeutic riding opened up a whole new world for her. Hartzell explained, “On Mandy’s third lesson, we brought her wheelchair into the center of the arena so that we could dismount her to the ground. As she neared the wheelchair, she exclaimed ‘Wow! My wheelchair looks so small from up here. I’ve never seen it that way.’ ”

Vicknair’s father Kevin, brought her to the weekly riding lesson and would provide most of the lifting to get her on the horse from the center’s specially-built wheelchair ramp. But, a year ago after he hurt his back and was unable to help her, she had to give up riding. Although her family would bring her from time to time to see everyone and just enjoy watching, it was not the same.

Earlier this year, Mandy visited her sister, Kathy Rauch, in New Caney, Texas. A neighbor of Rauch’s has horses which gave Mandy a thrill and when it came time to come back home, she could hardly make herself leave.

Rauch thought that surely something could be done to help her sister get back into the arena and on a horse. She began researching and found Surehands Lifts. Surehands Lifts is a company that makes a line of motorized transfer devices including the lifts and track systems appropriate for those with and without upper body strength.

Rauch contacted the company and after discussing the benefits of such a system, she and her husband, David, decided to purchase and donate the lift and track system to GNOTRC as a surprise for her sister.

Recently the surprise became a reality. Mandy was invited, along with her entire family, for a special event at the center. Hefler decided to make this a real special event.

A St. John Parish school bus was brought in and parked in front of the ramp and the new lift — hiding it from the entrance. When Mandy arrived, all of her family stood in front of the bus, calling “move the bus.”

When the bus moved revealing the lift and the track, she was astounded. Many tears flowed with happiness.

All Mandy could say was, “I’m amazed, I’m shocked, excited and thrilled.”

David Williams, of Surehands Lift, who worked with Rauch and Hefler from ordering through installation, was on hand to help Mandy into the lift with the assistance of her father, and to make sure the mechanics worked correctly. The lift works by battery and is remote controlled.

She was not placed on a horse that night as the horses need to become adjusted to the mechanical lift. As she was being lifted, she said, she thought, “I’m back in the saddle.” And later posted all to her Facebook page.

Other riders at GNOTRC who will have need of the lift will also be using the device.

GNOTRC is a nonprofit organization and a member center of the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association and the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International. For information visit the website: www.gnotrc.com.

Jane Pic Adams writes about issues of interest to individuals with disabilities and their families. Contact her at jpa.article@gmail.com.