Riding To Freedom

The horse has long been a symbol of freedom. But for disabled people confined to wheelchairs, time spent riding can take on a special meaning — a chance to break free for a while from the confines of everyday life and challenge stereotypes about the disabled.

NATURE’s HORSES profiles the remarkable story of one woman who has dedicated her life to nurturing this therapeutic bond between horses and people. Carol Wooley has loved horses since she was a child. “I wanted to have a horse ever since I can remember,” she says. Finally, at 19, she got her wish: “A two-year-old palomino who tried to kill me a few times, but we got along,” Wooley remembers. Indeed, she ended up riding the horse for 22 years.

Carol Wooley, founder of the Carousel Riding School.

In 1996, however, Carol took her love of horses one step further. Two weeks after the Atlanta Olympic Games, another world-class competition came to town: the Paralympics, for the world’s best disabled athletes. Organizers needed horses for equestrian events and Carol decided to help out, taking time off work to bring several horses to the games. One was an old swaybacked hunting pony named Carousel.

Carousel proved to be too much to handle for several riders, but then Brita Anderson of Denmark took the reins. “Brita and Carousel made a connection,” Wooley recalls. “He knew exactly what she wanted and she knew how to get the most out of him . . . they were a perfect match.”

Indeed, Anderson and Carousel went on to win a gold medal in dressage riding, a competition that puts horse and rider through a demanding, disciplined series of routines in a show ring. “Carousel hadn’t done dressage work since I don’t know when,” Wooley recalls. “But he went out there like he’d always done it.” The unexpected win “had to be one of the high points of my life,” Wooley says.

In fact, her Paralympic experience changed the direction of her life. She never returned to her previous job as a graphic artist. Instead, she started a nonprofit therapeutic riding school on a small farm about 100 miles south of Atlanta. The Carousel Riding School is one of some 600 such schools in the United States which use riding as a way to improve the lives of those dealing with disabilities, both physical and emotional. For people who must often rely on others to move their wheelchairs from place to place, the freedom of horseback can be particularly fulfilling, Wooley says. “People who are tired of being pushed around can get a lot psychologically out of being able to control their own horse,” she says.

Today, a “fat and happy” Carousel lives on the farm in semi-retirement, along with 15 other horses and ponies. Donations and more than two dozen volunteers help keep the place going, including one who traveled from Japan intent on learning skills she can take home with her. About three dozen riders from seven surrounding counties use the facility, keeping everyone “plenty busy,” says Wooley. “You wouldn’t believe the amount of work that gets done around here.” But there is always more to do: development is encroaching on the 17 acres the school rents, meaning it may soon be sold. So Wooley is beginning to look for a new home.

And though the transition — at age 53 — to a new career “has been kind of rough financially” for Wooley, she says she doesn’t regret the decision. The rewards of her work — from a young girl who smiled broadly the first time she held the reins to the growing confidence of a disabled dressage rider intent on making a future Paralympic team — “makes you proud to be human,” she says. “It brings out the best in people.”

  • Harley Rowell

    My mom is disabled and barely able to walk she can not even walk a few feet but when she is in her wheelchair and she goes near him, he will lean against her and let her hold on to him and he will help her walk that is how I found out that Horses are great with the disabled

  • mary

    aaawww i think thats awsome
    what you guy are doing …i love horse too then are the best thing in my life ..

  • AndieGirl


  • sammie

    i also love horses and i have 5 of them !!!!!!! :)

  • lindsey

    you all are right in my 4-H we went to horses of hope and we did some exercisesand it was a lot of fun! also we met horses that are really important to the society she has for the disabled! one more thing i love horses and would do anything to save a horses life and im sure you guys woud too.

  • leslie says

    This is to Lindsey, I am studying about animals and human health. I am curious about the 4H program related to animals of all kinds. Where can I get more info?

  • Brett

    wow horses are only good for glue

  • meemee

    hey i love horses sooooooooooooooooooooo munch!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • meemee

    brett u know what horses r nice and pretty, loving , and what have horses ever done 2 u?????

  • meemee

    horses r great !!!!! i would do any thing 4 horses!!!!!!!!! i have 6.

    1.river num. 1,6,3 r my fav.

  • peekabooo

    horses will rule the world in 20 yrs time

  • Sillywillyy

    Awww so sweet now people disable like from a car crash leaveing them pralzed and other disabled people can do something that we can all do ride horses. Horse are a way into freedom they bring out the happyness in all of us even when its your frist time rideing and your a litte scared find it fun i love to ride horses they bring out my locked up presoinlay (my happyness is usaly traped inside me i can neaver really free it but when i’m on a horse my locked up presonily is set free i’m deprested half the time i usally neaver smile but on a horse i love to stay and smile a while it brings out my happyness and smiles take my smile and go a mile neaver frown again)

  • SillyBillyWilly

    Awww soweet and kind

  • SillyBillyWilly

    That is the most kind thing someone can do i’m poud of that she is doing this to help the disabled

  • handdyman

    Thanks for this article. It allows me to know details about the wheelchair more

  • lollipop

    Horses are amazing, this webiste was so easy to use, our teacher had us use it to do our homework..yay

  • Will

    Rubber Duckies are better!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • lollipop

    WILL! I love horses

  • Tanner

    I love all horses but you need more pics and less writing

  • farmergirl

    I love all horses, they do so much more than give friendship, love, beauty or a ride in the yard. I love riding all the time cant get enough of it no matter how many times you wreck em you get up dust your self off get on and show them your boss but can still love them and have fun to. I think we need more of these centers to help people get what they need to feel happier theres nothing wrong with that. I’ll ride till i cant get in the saddle no more :)

  • Barbara

    My horse was my therapy as a single mom and helped me raise 3 children. I owe her my life . Now I’m trying to help save our wild horses that are being wiped out by the Bureau of Land Management. .

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