AU Students Train Special Olympic Riders – Asbury University
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October 28, 2015

Four Jessamine Connection students — trained by Asbury University students from its one-of-a-kind Equine Program — competed recently in The Special Olympics State Equestrian Competition held at the Alltech Arena at the Kentucky Horse Park. This year, 40-plus athletes with mental disabilities competed in either English or Western class, which included obstacle courses, equitation or horse ballet (having the athlete follow specific orders).

“It is a very special thing. Seeing the excitement the athletes have is enough to make it worth it.”

Every year for more than a decade, Asbury’s Equine Program has worked with Jessamine Connection students by providing coaching and horses for Special Olympics competition. One of its first riders, Phillip Riley, brought home a bronze medal in 2001 from the Special Olympics in Dublin, Ireland. 

The Jessamine Connection program is designed for 18- to 21-year-olds with special needs, giving them the opportunity to study, work and socialize with others in their own age group. They go to classes, work in offices on and off campus, and some take horseback riding lessons.

This year, the head coach was Asbury Adjunct Professor Michele Ridenour, who got involved in Equine when she was a sophomore at Asbury. Having had some experience with special needs children, Ridenour volunteered to help work with the students in the Jessamine Connection Program. Ridenour had to jump into unfamiliar territory by working with a student on a skill for the Special Olympics, but after the Olympics, she was hooked.

“It is a very special thing,” Ridenour said. “Seeing the excitement the athletes have is enough to make it worth it.”

Unlike the rest of the programs who prepare for the Olympics in June or July, the Jessamine Connection students don’t start training until school starts in August. However, with Asbury’s help, the students always pull through and do well.

students and horses
Left to Right: Michele Ridenour, Becky (horse), Amanda Van Noppen, Amber Wachs, Becky Teeples, Kylie Gooden, Baxter (horse), Mary Vandevort, Shannon Duck, Jonathan Hardy, Max (horse), Hilary Younglove, Kathleen Colliver, Michelle Hidalgo

“I don’t think Asbury’s team has ever gone and not won medals,” said Ridenour. “Then again, we have really good horses, students and coaches.”

Asbury seniors Amanda Van Noppen and Shannon Duck helped coach Amber Wachs and Katie Hale, both former Jessamine Connection students.

Before coming to Asbury, Duck was involved in an equine therapy program. Her favorite part of the event was seeing the students put into action what they have been teaching them for the past few months leading up to the Olympics.

“I’ve really enjoyed coaching both of them,” said Duck. “Sometimes it can be really hectic… but it has been worth it to see the progress that they’ve made.”

Van Noppen has been teaching therapeutic riding for more than a year. Part of her getting ready for the Special Olympics was getting the former students back into shape, but most of it was building confidence in their skills.

“Both Katie and Amber are such blessings in everyone’s life,” said Van Noppen. “I know I consider them more like friends than any type of client. It has been so much fun to get to know them and share a passion for horses.”

Both Van Noppen and Duck’s work paid off in the end. Wachs won Bronze in English Working Trails and Silver in English Equitation, both being independent walking classes (Wachs doing the activities on her own).

Wachs really enjoyed having Van Noppen and Duck as coaches.

“They are fun, but they also challenge me to learn new things,” Wachs said. “I am thankful for all the Asbury students are doing to help me be a better rider. It was exciting. I always try to do my best.”

To learn more about Asbury University’s Equine program, visit: asbury.edu/equine