Published 11:45 pm Friday, July 25, 2014

By Monique Roth

LAPLACE — One local woman will be back in the saddle again, all thanks to a generous donation from her aunt.

Family and friends gathered at The Greater New Orleans Therapeutic Riding Center Monday for a surprise of a lifetime for Mandy Vicknair, a 31-year-old St. James Parish resident who has been in a wheelchair since she was 3 years old. Her grandmother, Geraldine Bienvenu, said Vicknair never has been able to walk because of the developmental congenital disorder spina bifida. 

Anita Hefler, executive director of GNOTRC in LaPlace, said Vicknair loved visiting the center for riding lessons, because she got to leave her wheelchair and experience horseback riding.

Unfortunately, that all changed a year ago when Vicknair’s dad Kevin injured his back. Because of the injury, he was no longer able to assist the staff in placing his daughter on the horses, and Vicknair was forced to stop the riding lessons.

Kathy Rauch, Vicknair’s aunt, said she learned about the lessons stopping during one of Vicknair’s visits to her Texas home. Rauch, who is part of a ranching community, said Vicknair didn’t want to leave after getting to spend so much time around the horses.

That gave Rauch an idea.

She contacted David Williams, a sales representative with SureHands Lift and Care Systems, and asked him about purchasing a lift system so Vicknair could ride again. Williams visited Hefler at the riding center and decided on a set-up that would best suit the needs of the center. 

On Monday, that lift was revealed to Vicknair in grand style with family members yelling, “Move that bus!” to a school bus positioned in front of the riding ring at GNOTRC.

Slowly but surely, as the bus crept down the yard, a lift system was revealed and it was explained to Vicknair exactly what it was and what it meant for her future.

“Y’all don’t know how much I wanted this,” Vicknair said, choking back tears.

Williams, who was at the reveal for Vicknair’s lift, said there is nothing like being able to help people gain some independence.

“What just happened was a MasterCard commercial,” Williams said after the reveal. “It’s priceless.”

Because of Rauch’s donation, Vicknair, as well as many other wheelchair-bound riders, will be able to enjoy riding horses.

GNOTRC volunteer Cindy St. Pierre said the lift is “the best thing that could have happened” to Vicknair, and that she was so excited to be able to see her ride again.

“Her face lights up when she rides,” Hefler said.

GNOTRC takes a break from classes during August because of the heat, but when classes resume after Labor Day, Hefler said she feels confident the center’s staff will be comfortable with the lift and Vicknair will be able to ride again.  

“This is something she can do on her own,” Katie Kahl, Vicknair’s cousin, said. “It makes her feel free.”

Vicknair was all smiles, with a few happy tears at the reveal, at GNOTRC when she excitedly talked to Hefler about the idea of riding again.

“The very first time I got on a horse I thought, ‘All my life I had always had people looking down on me, and now people are looking up to me,’” Vicknair said with a smile.

For more information about the Greater New Orleans Therapeutic Riding Center, visit gnotrc.com. For more information about SureHands lifts, visit surehands.com.