Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Custom wheelchair helps equine science student learn, help others

Jack poses in his specialized chair, with a horse beside him
Jack Charlesworth. Photo courtesy
of Sherrie Petty
Horses have always been a part of Jack Charlesworth’s life. Naturally, he settled into the field of equine sciences at Utah State University, where he is now a senior. He also volunteers with USU’s Equine Experience program, which uses horses in therapeutic and educational activities.

The field has made a particular impact on Charlesworth, who had a spinal infection that has required the use of a wheelchair for as long as he can remember. He has been riding horses since before he can remember, too. Riding has given him more than freedom; it has also made him feel better physically. 

“I love horses,” he said. “I get to leave my chair at the side of the arena.”

The sand in the arena used by USU’s Equine-Assisted Activities & Therapies program is specially designed so that wheelchairs like his can maneuver through it. It has chopped-up, recycled sneakers in it to help wheelchairs get a grip on the surface. But even with the high-tech sand, Charlesworth’s manual wheelchair ran into some problems.

His equine science program includes ground work: grooming and training. It was tricky, though; if he operated his manual chair with one hand and held a tool in the other, the chair turned in circles.

He had the same problem when leading a horse; if one hand held the lead while the other worked the wheelchair, the chair tended to turn. The manual chair also limited him when he groomed horses; it was too low for him to reach as high on the horse as he needed to.

So Charlesworth and leaders from Equine-Assisted Activities and Therapies turned to the Utah Assistive Technology Program, located in the Center for Persons with Disabilities at Utah State University. AT Laboratory Coordinator Clay Christensen and a team of volunteers drew up plans for a modified power chair.

They began with two chairs, one of which was cannibalized to provide needed parts. They found some longer bolts and bolted wheels together, so that both drive wheels were twice as wide. The team also modified the chair’s back castors to make them wider. “It took a little welding, a little thinking outside the box, a little trial and error,” said Christensen. It also took the help of volunteers Mike Stokes and Todd McGregor. “It was a little bit of everybody.”

The result is a chair with fat wheels for driving over sand, and hydraulics that allow Jack to raise himself up a foot to groom horses.

Jack leads a pony while using the motorized chair in the arena.

The result has helped Charlesworth a lot in his arena work. “It allows me to move through the arena more freely, without getting stuck in the dirt,” he said. “It’s a lot more fluid in the power chair.”
The benefits of the new chair won’t stop with Jack. He is now looking into adding an Equine Assisted Activities and Therapies minor to his field of study, so that he can work with people who could benefit from equine therapy. The power chair will help with his minor, too.

“It [equine therapy] has helped me in the past,” he said. The benefits of being on a horse and experiencing the movement has not only reduced his symptoms, but made him feel better in general. “I want to use that to help others.”

Jack has volunteered with the program. “Many people in this field started as volunteers,” said Judy Smith, director of Equine and Human Sciences at USU. She is glad that Charlesworth can help them pioneer ways to make their programs more accessible to participants with disabilities. “Jack is really going to be our eyes and ears to be inclusive in the community.”

For more information about the Utah Assistive Technology Lab, contact Clay Christensen.

For more about the USU Equine Experience and its programs for the community, contact Judy Smith.

To find out more about the Equine-Assisted Activities & Therapies minor, contact Caisa Shoop.