Tucked away on 10 acres off Bradley Road, Equestrian Connection was cofounded in 2001 by Diana Schnell, a mother of twin boys with cerebral palsy. Her dream was to create a place where anyone could ride, no matter what challenges they faced.
Today, Equestrian Connection offers an incredible range of services and supports for children and adults with needs, whether physical, psychological, emotional, or medical. With a primary focus on hippotherapy and therapeutic riding, Equestrian Connection has expanded its services to encompass the whole family, with sibling riding lessons, art therapy, massage therapy, equine-assisted psychotherapy, job training, and even a full-service summer camp program. Each week, the staff partners with volunteers to work with more than 250 individuals—and no one is ever turned away.
“We focus on a participant’s ability, never his or her disability,” explains David Boland, Special Programs Director at Equestrian Connection. This “open-door policy” is what brought him to Equestrian Connection. “Cross-categorically, we will try everything to help anyone succeed here and are continually developing new programs and services to meet the changing demands of our population.”
What Is It About the Horse?
It’s not just a ride in the barn. “It’s therapy in disguise,” explains Diana. “The horses don’t judge or place limitations on their riders. With every ride, our clients confront their disabilities and defy expectations.”
Even those with significant physical limitations can ride independently, fostering a sense of independence and self-confidence. The three-dimensional swinging motion of the horse’s gait moves the rider up and down, forward and backward, side to side—in the process awakening and stimulating muscle and brain activity and improving coordination. There is no other exercise regimen that alone can provide all these movements. These benefits were confirmed in a yearlong study by the Washington University Program in Occupational Therapy, which measured stability changes in children with cerebral palsy.
Horses are powerful facilitators in human development. They are extremely sensitive and give immediate feedback to those with whom they engage. The sounds, smells, textures, and horse’s movement and speed provide sensory input to riders on the autism spectrum. Learning how to control an animal much larger and stronger, and respond to its movement demands self-control, patience, and the ability to differentiate relevant stimuli.
The miracle of the horse has proven true for riders with multiple sclerosis (MS) as well. In May 2010, Equestrian Connection introduced its first riding program for individuals with MS—and the physical results are astounding. “I’ve done a myriad of other exercises, but nothing else has had such a profound effect on my overall well-being,” says Paul Wallace, a rider who was diagnosed with MS in 1987. “Riding has made my core stronger, improved my stability, my walking is better, even lessening my drop foot. The therapeutic value is unquestionable.”
Serving More Than Just Families
The impact of Equestrian Connection extends far beyond the many individuals and families it serves. “Equestrian Connection is the perfect model of inclusion for this community,” says Julie Cooley, Assistant Superintendent of Student Services, Districts 67 and 115, who is leading efforts to create meaningful work opportunities for local citizens with special needs in Lake Forest and Lake Bluff.
“We need to do a better job of providing real and viable opportunities for young adults with special needs,” asserts Julie. “Imagine the value of having your child see someone with needs working in town and being a real contributor. There’s no better way to teach them how to embrace diversity and accept atypical abilities.”
To date, District 115 is partnering with Equestrian Connection on a prevocational work program. Several young adults transitioning out of school programs are learning concrete job skills while at the same time gaining the satisfaction of fulfilling a real job. Julie is using this partnership as a template for other businesses throughout Lake Forest and Lake Bluff.
The partnership doesn’t stop there. This spring, Lake Forest mom Meg Barnhart joined up with Drew Johnson, landscape architect with Rocco Fiore, to create a working garden at Equestrian Connection. Their dream is to take this concept to the next level, hopefully establishing a year-round greenhouse operation that can provide long-term, viable work opportunities. While still small in scope, the garden is already providing work opportunities for local vocational programs and summer campers.
Giving Back to Those Who Give
Whether it’s Lake Forest High School students and Eagle Scouts Connor Adams, who built a horse corral, and Brian Collazo who built a compost enclosure, or parishioners from First Presbyterian Church of Lake Forest, who have chosen Equestrian Connection as their mission project, each is a testament to the saying, “It feels better to give than to get.”
For local teens, volunteering at Equestrian Connection imparts the gift of a healthy perspective. Some teens sign up to fulfill service hours; others come because they may have a sibling who rides; still others come because they like horses. For many of them, this is their first experience working with special needs kids and adults.
“Helping these kids get stronger keeps you grounded,” explains Emily McArdle, who first volunteered in high school, leading horses and helping to exercise them. Also returning from college each summer is Carly Schwartz, who says, “Working here turns even the worst day into a great day. Everyone is always on the go, but here everything slows down and I have time to appreciate life as it is.”
Thanks to a grant from Moraine Township, Equestrian Connection will be offering ConnecTeen, a therapeutic program targeted at teen girls struggling with low self-esteem and social and emotional issues. Using unique therapeutic interactive exercises with the horses, these teens will develop trust and respect, problem solve, and build self-confidence.
Looking to the Future
This fall at its annual Barn Party, Equestrian Connection will celebrate 10 years of “Heroes, Hope & Healing.” Among those heroes is Marty Domitrovich, whose vision and resources helped to establish such a special place within our own community.
“I never imagined 10 years ago that our impact would be so pervasive,” reflects Diana. “Our challenge and goal for our new capital campaign is to raise sufficient funds to support future programs, provide financial support for our families in need, and make the long-term improvements that will enable us to continue serving our community as a whole.”
An Afternoon with the Villa del Lago Polo Team
Catch the thrill of thundering hooves and swinging mallets, and stay for the time-honored half-time divot stamping. Join the Villa del Lago Polo Team at Crab Tree Farm in Lake Bluff on Saturday, August 13, at 3 p.m. for a polo match benefiting Equestrian Connection, a therapeutic riding center for adults and children with special needs. A classic example of the 19th century gentleman’s farm, Crab Tree Farm offers a bucolic backdrop for this classic sport.
Half-time will also feature a special performance by The Red Stallions, Equestrian Connection’s four-member drill team.
Tickets for the second annual Polo Cup Charity Event can be purchased online at signmeup.com/76864 or in person at Equestrian Connection (600 N. Bradley Road in Lake Forest). Lawn seats are available for $50 per person. VIP tickets with preferred canopy seating and complimentary refreshments are also available for $75 per person ($100 after August 1). Only 250 tickets are available for this unique event.
Parking will be located at the Lake Bluff Train Station on Sheridan Road, with wheelchair accessible shuttles available to and from the match. (There is no parking on Blodgett Avenue or at Crab Tree Farm, and no pets are allowed.) Special thanks to event sponsors Rosalind Franklin University, JWC Media Group, Knauz Motors, Sidley Austin LLP, Storch Amini & Munves PC, Kirkland & Ellis LLP, and the Robert Morrison family.
Equestrian Connection is one of the few therapeutic riding programs that nationally addresses such a variety of needs with its broad range of services, including hippotherapy, art therapy, massage therapy, and equine-assisted psychotherapy, as well as summer camp. Each week, certified occupational, physical, and speech therapists, as well as certified instructors by the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association, partner with volunteers to work with more than 200 special needs children and adults.
An Illinois not-for-profit 501(C)3 corporation, Equestrian Connection is committed to helping individuals strengthen physically, mentally, and emotionally, believing that every individual has the right to receive services despite their challenges. Situated on 10 acres in northwest Lake Forest, Equestrian Connection offers a 26,000-square-foot facility with an indoor heated arena, outdoor riding arena, and a two-mile sensory trail. Programs are available Tuesday through Sunday, from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.