Students, Horses Shine at Equine Special Olympics

Throughout the ages, horses have performed many functions in society: transportation, agricultural power, companionship. For two groups of Jessamine County students, however, horses are serving as a bridge for education, accomplishment and confidence.

The first group of students consists of Asbury University’s Therapeutic Riding Instruction Class. The class is designed to help students build skills in working with riders who have various handicaps, therapy horses, tack and other equipment. Students learn to navigate paperwork — assessing a rider, lesson planning, progress reports and more — while they are mentoring and building relationships with their riders.

Jessamine Connection students competed at the Equine Special Olympics in September.
Jessamine Connection students competed at the Equine Special Olympics in September.

The second group comes from the Jessamine Connection, a program designed for 18- to 21-year-old students with special needs. Begun more than 10 years ago, the Jessamine Connection gives these students the opportunity to go to class, work in offices on and off campus, and some take horseback riding lessons.

And then there’s Sonny, Max and Sean — the horses who bring the two groups together.

“For some, just being outside and going to the barn is therapeutic,” Instructor Renee Frantum said. “Riding a horse improves flexibility, gross motor skills, physical and verbal communication, cognitive planning… the list goes on. If you can control a 1,200-pound animal underneath you, using your legs and two straps of leather connected from your hands to the horse’s halter, imagine what else you can accomplish.”

In September, the Jessamine Connection students had an opportunity to compete in the Equine Special Olympics at the Kentucky Horse Park. Riders Natasha, Adam, Alex and Austin brought home five gold medals, a silver medal, a bronze medal and a fourth-place finish. Events included Western Working Trails, Showmanship and English Equitation.

“The Jessamine Connection students are a bright light in my week,” said Chelsea Cleary '14, an Asbury student in the Therapeutic Riding Instruction class. “They are happy, witty and an eager-to-learn group of amazing people. I honestly have sincere pride for the JC students, especially when we take part in events like Special Olympics and I get to see them beaming from ear to ear because of how proud they are of themselves. It's been an honor teaching and being taught by them. Their spirit and desire to know more about the horse and develop themselves is unbelievably inspiring.”

Though the Special Olympics recognized the human participants, one of Asbury’s horses, Sean, was working hard at learning new things, as well. Sean was trained to be ridden using direct reins in an English style, with a rider using two hands. But because the riders assigned to Sean preferred Western gear, he adapted to following instructions through neck reining and leg aids — a significant difference in communication styles for the horse. In Sean’s two classes, his rider rode without a ground handler and won the gold.

“The Jessamine Connection students learn from the ground up,” Frantum said. “They start off by grooming the horse, learning how to saddle their horse, walking with the horse and then riding the horse. As with anyone learning to ride a horse, we start at a walk and, as they progress, go onto a trot and eventually canter. Two of the Jessamine Connection students, if they keep progressing, should be cantering by next semester.”

More information about Asbury’s Equine Center is available here.

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