Therapeutic horse riding program in Darien turns 30

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DARIEN, Wis. (AP) — Jim Stotler looks forward to special bonding time with his son, Sam, on Saturday mornings.

The pair enjoys breakfast and then arrives at SMILES in the town of Darien, where they count on a horse to brighten their day.

With help, 21-year-old Sam puts on his helmet and safety belts and mounts Lightning, possibly the gentlest horse in Walworth County, The Janesville Gazette ( ) reported. For the next hour, two volunteers walk on each side of the horse and another leads it around the inside arena as Sam rides.

"Sam has some profound problems that keep him away from activities available to normal children," Jim said. "It is always a challenge to find a program that can be tailored to his needs."

Fifteen years ago, Jim discovered SMILES, where people with special needs take part in therapeutic riding.

SMILES stands for Special Methods in Learning Equine Skills.

Today, Sam is among more than 2,200 clients who have benefited from SMILES since it began 30 years ago.

Jim calls Sam one of the lucky ones.

"Sam has a fantastic time riding the horses," Jim said. "Riding helps him understand the world that is such a challenge to him."

Sam is in good company.

More than 100 riders a week, ranging in age from 4 to 70, find help at the nonprofit riding center. Clients might have physical, cognitive or emotional disabilities. They also might suffer from anxiety, depression and other mental illness.

"A common misconception is that SMILES is just for children," said Katie Boss, program coordinator. "It is for people who have a wide variety of conditions. It can be stroke victims who are doing rehabilitation or adults with multiple sclerosis. We are seeing more and more doctors refer patients for horse therapy."


Supporters of therapeutic riding say it offers many benefits.

Among them are:

-- Physical strength and balance building, which have allowed some riders to take their first steps at SMILES.

"A horse's gait simulates walking in a human," Boss explained. "The action works on core strength and balance. If a rider has tight muscles, riding can be therapeutic for flexibility."

She said a horse's body heat warms the saddle pad, which helps relax a rider's muscles.

-- Movement to encourage speech.

"If a rider is nonverbal, the movement of riding can force air out of the lungs to help the rider make noise," Boss explained. "We've had two riders whose first words were on horses. To see those moments are huge."

-- Opportunities to learn.

Different props, giant foam dice and numbers and letters on the walls of the indoor arena are used in learning games.

"A rider might learn how to spell a horse's name," Boss said. "We also can work on matching colors and learning letters or numbers. It depends on the goals of the rider."

-- Social and emotional benefits.

"Riders might work with partners, which builds on team work," Boss said. "Camaraderie is huge. Riders not only work with other riders but with their horses and volunteers. Many of our riders cannot do sports or other activities. Coming here is something they can do. Emotionally, that is huge."


None of the benefits would be possible without the horses.

"Our horses are intuitive animals and can pick up on human emotion," Boss said. "They can sense if a rider has anxiety or fear and will stop until the riders calm down. They also can pick up on it if riders are happy or sad. We have seen horses put their heads up to riders and let the riders hug them."

All 20 of the horses have different personalities. Some are loving and sweet. Some are more high energy and playful.

"We pair our horse's personality with the rider's personality," Boss said. "It takes a special horse to be a therapy horse. They are hard to find, but when we do, they are worth their weight in gold."

Executive director Gay Stran credits dedicated volunteers for the organization's success.

"Many have been with us since the early days," she said. "They have a personal understanding of how powerful a relationship with a horse can be. They see firsthand how our clients experience therapeutic horsemanship."

The group has 350 volunteers who help with programs, fundraising and in the office. No horse experience is necessary.

In the next 30 years, Stran said SMILES will continue to serve clients, possibly with more specialized programing.

"There are so many ways horses with their healing powers can help people," she said. "We see success stories every day."


Sherry Monty will tell you it takes a community to make SMILES successful.

"I am very happy with how SMILES has evolved over the years," said Monty, who founded the program in 1985 and is now retired from it.

In the beginning, she and a handful of volunteers began with borrowed horses and equipment. One by one, they educated the public about therapeutic riding.

Thirty years later, Monty believes someone must have been watching over her.

"People are wonderful and will rise to the occasion when they believe in a need," Monty said. "Clients showed me there is no limit to what an individual can accomplish."


Information from: The Janesville Gazette,

This is an AP Member Exchange shared by The Janesville Gazette

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