The Horses are Heroes at Equest.
looking good on a sunny day in Rockford.
by Cliff Yankovich
Tuesday July 21, 2009, 4:15 PM
ROCKFORD -- As we turned into the drive at the Equest Center for Therapeutic Riding just outside of Rockford the other day, on our way to meet some of the great staff and volunteers, a thought bubbled up: Why not write about the horses?
There is no doubt Equest director Kathy Ryan would be helpless without the literal army of volunteers and staff it takes to enable the center to offer the incredible services it does to all ages of people with physical and/or mental challenges. Their commitment comes from love of people and horses, not money.
Consider Angela Taylor of Kent City, who runs the office. She started as a visitor, then became a volunteer and then took a paid position. Her two children, Justin and Abby, both help out on a regular basis all year round. Sometimes as paid help and other times as volunteers - this is very common at Equest. As one lady washing a horse told me, "There are other rewards besides money."
On prior visits, we have seen how it can take up to four or five people just to enable one rider to enjoy the thrill of riding on a horse. If you speak with Kelly Wujkowski, instructor and volunteer coordinator, it won't take long to realize how much the Equest staff depends on the steady stream of donations of time, energy, patience, and money from the men, women, and children who help make Equest a reality.
All that is true, but there can be no equine therapy without horses.
We learned quickly that there is no single "favorite" horse at Equest. Kathy had a tough time picking subjects for this article from the 29 horses on the grounds. So we helped and settled on Wallis and Painter - because they are similar and vastly different at the same time.
Painter was donated to Equest by Ashlee Gordon, after many years as a "show queen". She probably acquired the wonderful demeanor that allows her to "do it all" at Equest in her many years of being a 4-H horse. Doing it all means that Painter is suited to carry any of the riders in any of the programs. She can handle a nervous rookie who might take most of the half-hour riding time just getting settled into the saddle for a little walk. Painter can switch gears and canter around the ring with a more experienced rider riding on his or her own.
Kelly explained that it took her well over a year to make the transition from being a volunteer to becoming a certified instructor. She went on to explain how Painter and Wallis were also brought into service over a number of months.
The horses basically hang around the barn for 45 days or so to acclimate themselves to all the goings on. Then they are introduced to the adaptive riding equipment that allows people with physical difficulties to hang on.
Once the horse becomes comfortable with the different types of gear, the humans then see if they can rattle them by knocking things over, making noises, and generally causing a ruckus, while the horse circles the arena. Then the horse is introduced to riding classes, with no rider on its back. Finally, a staff person will get on and deliberately attempt to spook the horse - they might pull the horse's hair, shout, or even jump off on purpose. All of this training is done under a lot of watchful eyes and the horse could be eliminated at any point.
Not only is he a bigger horse, (16.1 hands and 1,100 pounds, compared to 13.3 hands and 800 pounds), but Wallis had a very different background from Painter. He was a record-setting, award-winning barrel racer for well over a decade. Beth Spica, who is a ardent believer in and supporter of Equest, referred to Wallis as "a gentleman athlete". He carried Beth and then her daughter Molly in many a speed contest - they raced in pole bending events in addition to the barrel races.
Even at the peak of his athleticism, Wallis was capable of changing gears according to the rider. Molly began racing him in Little Britches Rodeo events when she was in middle school at the same time her mom raced him. This flexibility and willingness to serve any rider was a key component in his being a good fit for Equest.
"This is where he is meant to be," was how Beth summed things up.
Her sentiments were echoed by Kathy Ryan: "Wallis is just fantastic. If he kid teeters on his back, he will stop. We have some kids who [because of their physical condition] simply cannot be allowed to fall, and he is perfect for them."
Wallis and Painter have been at Equest since 2007. Another horse, Bill, worked for eight years and then was given a year sabbatical. Bill has a lot of friends who are awaiting his return to work. Holly, a 1,200-pound quarter horse, has been working at Equest since 1994. As a reward for their patience and understanding when they work in the ring, Kelly selects some of the volunteers to be in the Horses and Hands program to spoil the horses. These folks spend time with a particular horse, each week pampering it, which demonstrates how important the four-legged workers are.
Kelly gave us a great example of how Wallis, Painter, and the other horse therapists can work their magic. She cited a group of autistic kids who rode together. A real talkative, noisy student was promised that if he sat tall and quiet in the saddle, then his horse would trot.
At the other end of the spectrum, another student, who barely ever spoke, was told his horse would trot if he would speak up and ask it to. The incentives worked. Kelly spoke with school teachers for both kids and the report was that the better they did with their horse therapists, the better they did in school.
Hey Painter and Wallis - that is pretty impressive stuff. Keep up the good work.