By Anne Calos firstname.lastname@example.org
Niagara Gazette — When Miriam Smith started Equi*Star 20 years ago, she only had one horse, four riders, a handful of volunteers and the vision of a therapeutic riding center that could help handicapped people in Niagara County.
Today, Equi*Star has grown beyond Smith’s wildest dreams. It has its own “ranch,” complete with an indoor riding arena, 20 horses, a mule, a donkey and more than 100 volunteers. But more importantly, Equi*Star serves hundreds of handicapped children and adults every year.
With a new season starting, Equi*Star is seeking volunteers, and has set up two training sessions. The first is Saturday, with a second session set for March 1. Smith said that hundreds of volunteers are needed every year to support the growing program, and no experience with horses is needed. Volunteers just need to be 14 or older, and enjoy working with people. Volunteers can work as little as an hour a week, or as much as they want.
Smith didn’t start out planning to open a therapeutic riding center. She was just looking for something to do after becoming an “empty nester.”
“My kids were grown up, so at 49, I went back to college. I saw something on TV about how therapeutic riding can help really handicapped people, so I did an internship at Lothlorien Therapeutic Riding Center in East Aurora,” Smith said.
It didn’t take long for Smith to realize that folks in Niagara County would benefit from a riding center closer to home.
“I have a background in horses, and I love horseback riding, so I thought, ‘I can share this with someone who otherwise wouldn’t be able to experience the thrill that riding a horse brings,’ “ Smith said.
With a lot of encouragement from the folks at Lothlorien, she founded Equi*Star.
One of her fellow volunteers from Lothlorien, also a Niagara County resident, has been helping Smith right from the beginning. Sandy Klinger is the Special Olympics coach and instructor at Equi*Star, and she has seen what the program can do for people with both physical and mental disabilities.
Although Equi*Star serves people of all ages with a range of special needs, both Smith and Klinger said that lately, many of the riders are autistic.
“There’s something about the motion of the horse that helps them open up to people more,” Klinger said.
Smith related a story from one mom of an autistic son who told her, “My son is uncomfortable in his own skin, but when he’s on a horse, all of that changes. He’s a different person.”
Program director Peggy Sue Shiesley knows first-hand what a difference therapeutic riding can make for someone with disabilities. She brought her disabled nephew to an Equi* Star open house six years ago, and she was hooked.
“I came here and saw the place, and I fell in love with it. It is such a joy to be here and see the interaction between the people and the horses. With a lot of these kids, they just don’t fit in, but here, there’s no odd man out. The horse is the great equalizer. This is all about succeeding,” Shiesley said.
In addition to its horses, Equi*Star has a wooden stationary horse named Taco (in honor of its donor, Mighty Taco).
Klinger said that Taco is important because the children, especially those with cerebral palsy, can use the horse “off season” to keep their muscles limber and help them with their balance. Taco can be fitted with any type of saddle, and rocks and moves much like a regular horse. Taco is also used for children who are initially afraid of the real horses.
“There isn’t anything here that doesn’t help a kid,” Shiesley said.
Klinger explained that, in addition to riding, the children also play games and learn about how to groom and care for horses. Older students in Lifeskills classes learn skills needed to work on a farm.
Smith said that children with physical disabilities have to have permission from their doctor before they can enter the program, and then they are evaluated by a physical therapist at Equi*Star who recommends activities. However, she stressed that even people confined to wheelchairs can benefit from Equi*Star.
Libby the Mule is very calm, and is good for excitable children; Eeyore the donkey is short and sturdy for people who can’t climb onto a bigger horse. Lily the pony is just right for small children, or for those who can’t physically get on a horse. Lily is also used an ambassador for the ranch. She can be taken to events and classrooms where larger animals can’t go.
The ranch is also training a pony, Caprice, who like Lily is part of the “Personal Ponies” program. The specially bred ponies are trained and then given to a child with disabilities as a pet.
Smith said children with special needs can bond with a pony, and sometimes even non-verbal children will begin to socialize after caring for a pony. She credits the community with supporting Equi*Star over the years, and allowing it to grow and serve more people.
“We want everybody to be able to experience this. It’s just amazing what it can do,” Smith said.TO HELP • WHAT: Equi*Star volunteer training sessions • WHERE: Equi*Star Therapeutic Riding Center, 2199 Fuller Road, Burt • WHEN: Noon to 2 p.m. Saturday; 10 a.m. to noon March 1 • MORE INFORMATION: Call 778-8249, 772-2156 or 778-0177