Another Way to Drive

Reprinted from PN September 2010

Lift-equipped horse-drawn carriages are making a difference in the lives of many people with disabilities.

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Jerry Garner had no idea he might be part of a small revolution. One day he went to watch some ponies he’d raised working at a therapeutic equine center and saw wheelchair users pushing up ramps to get into carriages.

“I came home saying there’s got to be a better way than pushing a chair up a ramp, and thought about (hydraulic) lifts,” he explains. “One of our sons is a machine designer. He came up with the idea for one that works.”

That was back in the early 1990s. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was new, and accessibility was a growing concept. Since then, Garner has made about 50 Thornleas, the name of his lift-equipped horse-drawn carriages.

“I think it was the first one in the world that I know of,” says Garner. “I’ve not seen any others (before it).”

Huge Impression

Ken Weas had just started life with a C4–5 cervical injury around the time the Thornlea rolled out. He’s an avid sportsman and national director of the Central Florida Paralyzed Veterans of America chapter. Weas recently took his first carriage-driving lesson on a Thornlea at the Florida Carriage Museum & Resort, in Weirsdale. He’s an instant return customer.

“My goal is to drive a team of horses,” Weas remarks. “I have to go from one to two, then I want to get skilled enough for a team of four.”

Ken Weas takes a carriage-driving lesson with instructor Kacy Fashik. He drives the Thornlea model, equipped with a lift.

Weas’s family owns two horses; his 18-year-old daughter, Kaitlyn, has taken him for rides.

“I’ve been on a horse with her leading the reins, but for me to drive with my daughter in the back seat—that was very emotional for me,” Weas says. “It’s so much easier to do with a carriage than on the horse’s back. The loading process is so much easier and less restricting than getting on a horse. And you still get the equine experience.”

The resort is one of a seemingly growing number of places offering people with disabilities carriage-driving lessons. With Weas’s help, it’s building a program for veterans with catastrophic disabilities. Student Mary “Scottie” Stoddard donated the Thornlea. Her interest in driving horses came unexpectedly—she thought she was taking in a classic movie, not getting inspired. 

“I was watching the movie Ben Hur, and I thought, Why can’t there be a carriage that has a ramp for me to get up in it?” she explains.

Stoddard, who is quadriplegic, asked neighbors about accessible carriages, because they ran a hippotherapy program.

“I put it out to the universe and let people know that’s what I wanted to do.”

Turned out the neighbors didn’t have much to offer on the subject. But Stoddard’s search for an accessible carriage led her to Garner and United States Driving for the Disabled (USDFD).

“Once the individual is in a carriage behind a horse, they are an equal,” says Debbie Banfield, USDFD president. “The motivation is freedom of mobility. They can go in a carriage where they cannot in a wheelchair.”

Banfield says there is growing interest in carriage driving among wheelchair users. Her program has taught about a dozen paras and quads, and fielded many more inquiries.

“I assess their needs and get them equipment, so they can drive on a regular basis at home,” she adds.

Carriage Sources

The Thornlea isn’t the only regularly-manufactured accessible carriage. Stoddard is now driving a Bennington, which she ordered from England. That company makes the Super Star. It doesn’t have a lift, but, in the company’s words, “the body is hydraulically lowered and raised to form part of the ramp, the back door forming the other half.” Bennington’s Beeby and Challenger have telescopic ramps. Its Waggonette uses a hydraulic lift.

Another English manufacturer of accessible carriages is Fenix. It, too, uses telescopic ramps on two- and four-wheel models.

Bellcrown Carriages straddles the Big Pond with manufacturing facilities in England and the United States. Its two-wheel Freedom model was developed with the Riding and Driving for the Disabled Association and features a folding ramp.

Accessible carriages are coming from unexpected places, too. A 2008 story in the Evansville Courier & Press reported the Horseshoe Bend Carriage Company in Indiana has an accessible carriage made by Amish craftsmen. According to the Courier & Press, the carriage features ground-level entry and removable seats. No word in the report on how the carriage is lowered for ground-level entry.

Garner explains that the majority of his Thornleas have gone to North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA) programs, but many have gone to individuals. The association has about 750 member centers and serves a wide range of people with disabilities—mostly children. According to the association’s 2009 fact sheet, its member centers have assisted 164 equestrians with spinal-cord injuries and 219 with varying kinds and degrees of paralysis.

Weas is talking to folks at the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital, Tampa, Fla., about carriage therapy. Haley is home of the Michael Bilirakis Spinal Cord Injury Center.

“This carriage thing has so much therapeutic potential,” comments Weas.

He explains that with most hippotherapy programs he’s seen, people with disabilities are put on horses and led around. With carriage driving, paras and quads can hold the reins. (In Stoddard’s case, the reins are attached to her wrists with hook-and-loop straps.)

 “The veteran is doing the work,” says Weas. “They are already doing equine programs in Tampa, but they’re not doing the carriage programs.”

Driving instructor Kacy Fashik took Weas for his first lesson. She hopes many more veterans with disabilities follow him to the Florida Carriage Museum & Resort for instruction.

“It’s nice to see someone with a disability, how much they can do,” Fashik explains. “You think someone sitting in a wheelchair can’t do very much, until you see them in action.”

Garner was happy to hear veterans with disabilities might soon be using one of his carriages at the resort. He’s retired and has personal reasons for building Thornleas.

“It really makes me feel quite wonderful, like we’ve done something for someone,” Garner says. “We’ve met a lot of wonderful people. We’ve delivered most of our vehicles ourselves. It’s been more of a ministry than a business.”

The Thornlea costs about $7,500. Garner welcomes calls about the carriage.

Contact: Jerry Garner, 260-569-0054 / NARHA, / USDFD, 


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