Written by Betsy Abraham Saturday, 21 September 2013 00:00
Horseability, the equine therapy center in Old Westbury, was recently home to the regional Special Olympics Horse Show. Over 80 riders from Horseability, as well as Saddle Rock Ranch’s Special Olympics training program, competed in equitation (the practice of horse riding) and obstacle courses. Winners from these games have the opportunity to go on to state, national and even world games.
Horseability’s Director of Operations, Jamie Kolodziejski, says that the Special Olympics gives special needs athletes an even playing field.
“These kids may not be able to participate in a lot of other sports, but with this, they’re all grouped with athletes of the same level. It’s a really fair playing field when it comes to competition,” Kolodziejski said.
Julie Dell’Aira is the Coordinator for the Community Therapeutic Riding Program at Saddle Rock Ranch in Middle island. She has been going to the Special Olympics for eight years and says she is continually amazed at how well the athletes do.
“It’s very difficult for some of them to maintain focus, but year after year these athletes really step up to the plate just like any other athlete would,” Dell’Aira said. “They just perform and it’s usually their best day ever. It’s amazing to see it all come together for them.
Carle Place’s Darlene Greco was one of 10 Saddle Rock volunteers who helped prepared the ranch’s 45 athletes for the competition. As a volunteer, Greco helps as needed-brushing horses, saddling them, and taking them back to the stalls. But her main duties at the ranch and at the Special Olympics were being a side walker and leading horses on the course.
As a side walker, Greco walks alongside the horse, ensuring the rider’s safety. When she’s acting as a leader, she helps makes sure the horse is walking around but that the client has the reigns to make it turn and follow directions. The side walkers and leaders allow the instructors the chance to stand back and look at the whole picture, while making sure the rider is safe.
At first, Greco was worried that her age would hold her back from being able to volunteer, as some of the tasks required a lot of physical activity. But she decided to give it a shot and now the 70-year-old has been helping at the ranch for over a year.
“It was amazing. Everyone was so welcoming and willing to teach me the ropes. My age never really entered into it,” Greco says.
And Greco has enjoyed working with the other volunteers, many of whom are teenagers.
“It’s fun to realize they are open to working with older people and it doesn’t matter that there are different age groups. We’re all there for the same thing. It’s a warm place to be,” Greco says.
This was Greco’s first time volunteering at the Special Olympics. Being at the event helped her realize how much of an impact that not only she was having on the kids, but that they were having on her.
“I didn’t realize the impact it had on the children when they saw a familiar face. This one little girl ran up to me and hugged me, and she’s never done that before,” Greco says. “I’m taking away a lot from volunteering. It makes you feel important and valued and like you’re there for a reason.
Dell’Aira says volunteers like Greco are essential to keeping Saddle Rock running. A typical training session with four riders typically requires anywhere from eight to 12 volunteers. But Dell’Aira says that these past few months, the ranch was hurting for volunteers.
“We need volunteers,” Dell’Aira said. “Special Olympics training is a challenging program to run, but it’s well worth it when you get to the horse show and see all the accomplishments of the people you’ve worked with.”
Kolodziejski echoes that, saying Horseability is always looking for volunteers to sidewalk, assist with horses, or help in the office. And experience is not necessary.
“We’re always looking for volunteers,” Kolodziejski says. “We’re always in need of (them.) Whether you love horses or want to work in the office, there’s a place for everyone at Horseability.”
And Greco encourages anyone from any background or age to come out and help.
“I think people my age may think they’re too old to volunteer,” she said. “But they have wisdom and abilities they may not realize so they should get out there and help.”