Joanne Tortorici Luna, a member of CSULB’s Educational Psychology, Administration and Counseling Department since 2000, was recognized recently with the Presidential Volunteer Service Award for her work with Move A Child Higher (MACH1), a therapeutic horseback riding program. President George W. Bush gives the award to individuals, families, and groups that have demonstrated outstanding volunteer service and civic participation over a 12-month period.
Executive Director Joy Rittenhouse, a certified instructor with the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA), founded MACH1 in 1996. Rittenhouse tapped into her own experience as a polio survivor to use horseback riding as a way to help children with cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, Rett syndrome, autism, visual, learning, and emotional disabilities. The program is housed in the Hahamongna Watershed Park near Pasadena’s Rose Bowl.
“I didn’t even know I was getting an award,” said Tortorici Luna, an internationally known expert in disaster psychology with a reputation for working with individuals, families and communities in situations of armed conflict. “I went to a holiday get-together for MACH1 and I was surprised to hear my name called. I was very honored, flattered and happy to receive the award.”
Tortorici Luna’s interest in MACH1 began during a camping trip with her son to the Santa Ynez Valley. “We fell in love with horses on that trip. In addition to riding, we’d get up every day before dawn and go down to the pasture and just hang out with the equines,” she recalled. “I began looking for a way I could combine my interest in horses with my other career activities. I grew up on Long Island when it was still rural enough to have plenty of animals. Then during the seven years I lived in Nicaragua, part of the time as national director of a mental health program for child war survivors, horses were a fact of daily life for work and transportation. But back in the U.S., I became interested in partnering up with horses in a closer, more collaborative way.”
Tortorici Luna has volunteered for everything from grooming and teaching the horses, to side walking and leading with children on horseback. “The children ride bareback and I provide support when it is needed,” she said. “I let them hold themselves up as much as they can. It builds strength, coordination, and confidence. Some progress so far, they can ride with reins and do dressage and vaulting. They all perform in MACH1’s Annual Horse Show.”
Research shows that the horse’s movement, combined with exercises and occupational games, promotes body awareness while affecting balance, strength and postural control. The movement of the horse is transferred by the therapy horse to the pelvis of the rider, thus enabling the building of optimal movement patterns. This can correct abnormal musculature and allow the body to work evenly on both sides. Physical contact, communication, and bonding with the horse also help promote emotional congruence and growth. Studies support the program.
“The field of therapeutic riding is not well known to the general public. There are those who think it is just pony rides or some kind of touchy-feely magic,” she said. “But there is good, solid research to back up the therapeutic value of guided horseback riding.”
Tortorici Luna received her B.A. in Physical Education from Cal State Los Angeles in 1980, her M.A. in Dance/Movement Therapy in 1986 from UCLA and her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from USC in 1988. In 2004, she received CSULB’s Community Service Award.
More information about MACH1 is available by calling Rittenhouse at 626/798-1222 or by accessing its Web site.
Tortorici Luna is glad she chose to get involved. “It is as much therapy for me as for the children,” she said. “It has become a wonderful source of satisfaction. Being with horses is a great way to become self-aware and to relax. Horses are ancient and intuitive prey animals. They are expert at reading the cues of what’s going on around them. If I’m grooming a horse and I feel jangled, the horse picks up on it and will let me know with his or her behavior. It is wake-up call to me that I need to take a breath, smile, and enjoy the day.”