Denise Choate's daughter Mia used to melt down in public. She didn't talk much. Like a lot of autistic children, she seemed to be in a world of her own.
Now, the 3-year-old can tolerate crowds -- she spent four hours at the Oakdale Chocolate Festival last month. She's more outgoing, more at ease.
Choate and her husband, Mike, pin much of the change on therapeutic horse riding for children with physical, mental and emotional disabilities. Mia rides every Sunday at a new nonprofit riding center in Oakdale called Rosie's Journey of Hope.
The Choates like the center so much they are hosting a fund-raiser to help pay for riding sessions for disabled children whose families cannot afford the therapy.
"Out there, they're not kids with disabilities," Choate said, "they're just regular kids riding a horse."
The Oakdale center, which opened two months ago, is one of a few therapeutic riding facilities in the area, including one in Modesto and one in Sonora.
It began with Cathy Calvin, a veteran of the therapeutic riding scene. Calvin first volunteered at a therapeutic riding facility some 20 years ago. In 1998, she opened Diamond C Therapeutic Riding Academy in Manteca, which she closed two years later because of financial concerns.
Despite the financial risks, Calvin felt the need to help children using horses. Among the benefits of therapeutic riding: improved balance, stronger muscles and better social skills.
Earlier this year, while working as a licensed vocational nurse in the schools and studying to become a registered nurse, Calvin found time to open Rosie's. It's named after a much-beloved horse Calvin owned for 18 years. Rosie died two years ago.
Parents pay for riding sessions -- Calvin doesn't receive state or federal funds. The cost is $40, or $240 for a series of six.
Calvin said she doesn't turn anyone away. Families who can't afford her services are sometimes sponsored by others, who donate money to the nonprofit. The rest of the costs are covered by fund-raisers.
Enter the Choates. The couple own CrossFit Modesto, a gym that specializes in an intense workout program often used by law enforcement and military. They will hold a super-workout of sorts and are asking $30 per person to take part. The money will go to Rosie's.
"Our hope is that other children and their families can experience this for themselves through the healing power of equine therapy," Denise Choate said.
For more information on therapeutic riding, and a list of riding facilities by area, go to www.narha.org.