NEW PORT RICHEY
Paige Leflar bounced as she circled a sandy, damp arena on an auburn mare, holding a faded, pink plastic hoop above her head. Tammy Farris called it her halo.
Three years ago, Paige was born with acromelic frontonasal dysplasia, a genetic disorder that caused certain parts of her body to form incorrectly in the womb. Her eyes are spaced far apart. A smooth plane spans where her nose should be. She won't be eligible for plastic surgery for at least two more years. She was born with club feet, no shinbones and no knee joints, and a year ago doctors amputated her legs below the knee. She can't speak.
Still, she's a budding extrovert. She has a cap of tight blond curls, and she likes to hold hands with anyone standing close to her. She's a ham for the camera. Like most little girls, she loves horses.
Farris, of Palm Harbor, is one of a cast of people who work to help Paige grow into the beautiful girl she is. Farris runs Kiddy Up Farms, which offers different types of therapy — speech, occupational, physical — on horseback.
Paige's legs grow stronger as she rides the mare, and her arms strengthen when she lifts her halo.
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Gayla Lavender and her two-and-a-half-year-old son Timmy arrived at Kiddy Up just after Paige's mother and home health nurse.
Timmy, who has cerebral palsy, was making a weak squawking sound as Lavender approached the painted red horse barn. He had decided to wake up at 5:30 a.m. and didn't want a nap before his 11 a.m. therapy session, leaving him exhausted and cranky, Lavender explained, a little embarrassed.
Lavender and Paige's nurse stood close to one another just inside the horse barn, holding the children as they waited for Farris. Paige saw Timmy's tears and reached out one pudgy, perfectly formed hand to pat his arm, his back, his arm again. He quieted for a moment as he looked at her. The distress in Lavender's face melted away as she watched Paige comfort her son, leaving a smile.
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When Farris was in college, she volunteered at a horse farm similar to the one she now owns. She was asked to assist with a class for children with disabilities. That request introduced her to what she knew would be her life's work.
Farris was later trained and certified by the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International, learning everything from advanced methods of therapy to basic first aid.
She never planned to turn the horse farm on Osceola Drive into a moneymaker. Each hour-long therapy session costs $30, but parents are rarely the ones who pay. Farris spends her free time going business to business, from restaurants to insurance agencies, asking for help with upkeep and sponsors for each child.
When Farris, 40, purchased the farm last November, it was overgrown with weeds, the paint on the barn flaking off and melting into dirt covered with crabgrass.
Farris and volunteers worked when the sun rose and continued long after it set every day of the week. They painted the barn, tore up the weeds by hand, laid sand for an arena, cleared a trail.
The property that once blemished a neighborhood is beautiful now, but Farris' dream is to buy another ranch, Camp Keystone in Odessa. With barns, a lake framed by dark trees and acres of meadows, Farris wants to build classrooms to train new equine therapists and work with children with different disabilities. She could make the camp a weekend retreat for families working through the challenges of having a child with a disability.
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Timmy and a volunteer holding him rode Breezy, a chestnut mare with a splash of white on her forehead. Paige and another volunteer rode Harley, a mare with a coat more red than brown.
The woman with Timmy tapped two plastic purple balls in front of the crying boy as they circled the arena, trying to soothe him with the sound. He stopped sniffling a few times to listen, even offering a weak simper when Farris talked to him as she walked beside his horse.
Paige and her volunteer went through occupational therapy exercises as they circled, building strength in Paige's arms and fingers.
Farris, walking beside them, held an orange traffic cone in one hand and with the other gave Paige multicolored rubbery rings, big enough to fit about one and a half adult hands through. Farris asked Paige to put the rings on the traffic cone, saying the color of the ring she wanted. Paige usually got it right.
Paige fingered the two rings she had left as Farris said, "Yellow."
Paige dropped a ring on the cone.
"That's orange, but we'll take it," Farris said. She beamed at the little girl, her voice warm.
Since starting therapy, Paige's nurse said the little girl's inner thigh muscles have gotten stronger. She's strong enough to close her legs and becoming more comfortable with prosthetics, a goal that seemed distant only a few months ago.
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Farris walked to Lavender in the barn, holding a quietly crying Timmy, to tell them both goodbye. For one of only a few times that day, Timmy smiled. She leaned forward, and Timmy pressed his forehead to hers, grinning.
Mary Kenney can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6247.