Story by Aitana Yvette Mallari
Photo by Loren Worthington
It was a decision made 15,000 feet in the air.
Somewhere in the stratosphere between California and Arizona, the parents of 12-year-old Alicia Draper thumbed through an article as their plane transported them from one chapter of their life to the next. They had planned to move to the Grand Canyon state. What they hadn’t planned for was reading about Camelot, an organization dedicated to therapeutic horsemanship for children and adults with disabilities.
“Oh, this would be fun,” they told Draper, who has cerebral palsy. “You’ll get to ride horses and you’ll have a good time.”
Draper agreed. Then again, it wasn’t surprising. For most of her life, family decisions weren’t just made—they were made for her.
They applied to Camelot. Alicia was put on a waitlist and didn’t arrive until a year later.
The location of Camelot’s sole facility in Scottsdale, much like its mythological namesake, is hidden except to those on a mission to find it. The journey may involve sharing the road with a horse or the occasional tumbleweed.
By the time she stepped on the premises, Draper thought she had signed up for a glorified pony ride. She figured she’d just get on a horse, get off, maybe do some stretches and physical therapy, much like what she had already done in California.
Instead, she met Eileen Szychowski, the founder of Camelot.
Szychowski, a self-proclaimed ‘walking quadriplegic,’ used crutches and according to Draper was both inspiring and intimidating.
“She was just a person that didn’t take no for an answer when it came to independence with people with disabilities, especially around horses,” Draper said.
It was no pony ride.
Draper’s schedule included grooming the horses, bonding and tacking, which meant putting on the saddle and bridle.
“If you couldn’t physically do it, you better know how to do it,” Draper said.
Students aren’t given a horse and left to fend for themselves, but they aren’t coddled either.
“We have a curriculum, so there’s no need to stress about it. But you are in charge,” Draper said.
It was a wake-up call Draper never knew she needed.
“You need to get yourself together,” Szychowski said. “You’re not even taking a shower by yourself.”
She was right.
Until then, Draper hadn’t been practicing any independent living skills. Seeing Szychowski’s control over eleven-hundred-pound horses with a physical disability stirred something inside her.
“I could draw strength from her,” Draper said.
Draper stayed in Camelot until she was 18. During that time, she learned how to drive with hand controls and mentored a girl with cerebral palsy who reminded her of when she first started.
Afterwards, Draper decided to get her associate’s degree. She then went on to earn her bachelor’s degree at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. From there she moved on to motivational speaking, even completing an exchange program in Mexico and working for Walt Disney World.
A decade after leaving Camelot, she woke up in the middle of the night.
“I really miss horses,” she said to herself. “I really miss being around Camelot.”
Draper holds a microphone close as she surveys her students from outside the arena. Their names are Kate and Karen and they lead their horses with Draper’s guidance.
Kate’s sitting up much straighter than last week. Karen’s looking more confident with the reins. Draper lets them know, her voice delicate yet firm.
“I’m going through the process to become a PATH Certified Instructor, which is the certification process called the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship,” Draper said.
It’s been seven years since she returned to Camelot. Szychowski had retired and passed on her executive director position to Mary Hadsall.
“I came on after she had already graduated as a student,” Hadsall said. “I’m very proud of her and it’s really been an honor to work alongside her.”
Much like the founder, Hadsall believes that at Camelot, every student has the right to risk.
“So many of our students are told, ‘no’ again and again based on the fact that they have a disability,” Hadsall said. “Here at Camelot, we try to think outside of the box and to really embrace our students’ right to risk, while providing the safest riding experience possible.”
Aitana Yvette Mallar
Aitana Yvette Mallari is an online media journalist who runs on caffeine and WiFi. She’s lived in the Middle East, Asia, and both coasts of the US and writes about health, tech, and amazing people doing amazing things. She is studying at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications and probably has a deadline to get to.