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Why S.M.I.L.E.S. isn't just a pony ride

--- Data backs up benefits of therapy

Sarah Kessler /Contributor

(Published July 16, 2007, 4:23 p.m.)


Ellie Peterson has a habit of telling everybody about "her horse," Duke. Her mother, Kathy, carries pictures of him in her purse for such occasions and says her daughter calls Tuesdays, the day of her lessons, "Duke days."

Peterson, a 7-year-old S.M.I.L.E.S. riding student, can't wait for the annual horse show on July 21 and 22.

Ellie had already excitedly invited her teacher, grandparents, aunts and a couple of neighbors to watch her compete at the Walworth County Fairgrounds.

"Talk about S.M.I.L.E.S.!" said Kathy. "My child smiles so much more. She is learning to build relationships through that horse and she is just so much more relaxed. I mean, Mondays, Mondays are such a good day because you can see her just think, 'Aw, tomorrow's Duke.'"

S.M.I.L.E.S., an acronym for special methods in learning equine skills, is nestled on a 35-acre ranch in Darien. The non-profit therapeutic horse-riding program can boast of similar success stories to Ellie Peterson's.

Robyn Shallenberter, for instance, started at S.M.I.L.E.S. when she was 11. At first she needed volunteers to assist her when the horse walked, but today, at age 16, she can trot independently with near-perfect riding posture.

And she knows it.

"She has gained so much confidence because she can ride a horse," said her grandmother, Joyce. "That's a big deal for a child who has special needs. She couldn't do that before, not even with the ponies at fairs. Now she just sits up there like she knows where she's going."

For 12-year-old Gabe Breen, riding horses is not only a way to exercise, something his Down syndrome can make difficult, but also a setting in which he has made friends. He has even called Ellie on the phone, which, according to his mom, made him feel pretty important.

S.M.I.L.E.S.' students participate in one 45-minute riding lesson a week. It's a little bit difficult to imagine how all of this impact fits into so little time.

It was, according to founder Sherry Monty, even harder for people to imagine when she started S.M.I.L.E.S. in 1985-before much of the research to back up its benefits was completed.

"People thought it was a pony ride," said Director of Programming Jean Firn. "Now we're able to back it up with data, and we have physicians who are recommending people to it."

The disabilities, which the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA) lists as benefiting from therapeutic horse riding, are vast. Among them are muscular dystrophy, autism, spinal cord injuries, visual impairment, learning disabilities and nearly everything in between.

Sometimes it is the movement of the horse, which simulates a walking human pelvis, which benefits a student. Sometimes it is the riding posture, which strengthens the abdomen and improves balance. And sometimes, as with the visually impaired, it's just the ability to move forward in space without a cane that makes a difference.

Riding also seems to have an emotional impact that improves lives-even those affected by a disability that is physiological.

"Emotionally, the horse is an instant gratification, instant motivator, instant everything," said Firn. "He wears his heart right on his sleeve. And if you walk up with attitude, he's going to give you attitude right back. And if you talk to that horse, it's really uncanny, but that horse will respond to your energy, to what you're feeling. They'll drop their heads, soften their eyes to look at you."

According to Ellie's mother, this is exactly the sort of interaction she needed. Ellie's disorder makes it hard for her to form relationships, and her mother sees great improvement since she started riding in January.

"She has to learn to love, that's what she needs to do," said Kathy. "And that's what she does with that horse. That horse is her love ... This has just been a godsend. I saw a big change."

The parents of Rosa Spellman have seen her develop people skills through her interaction with horses. They said their daughter carried what she learned at S.M.I.L.E.S. to her job with VIP Services and her senior year at Delavan-Darien High School.

"She has to let the horse have its way once in a while, and that's one important quality in getting along with other people," said her mom, Dona Palmer.

Even the volunteers, Firn said, get a little healing benefit from interacting with the horses and riders.

"We have some volunteers who are suffering from forms of depression themselves," she said. "This is their therapy."

As a non-profit organization, S.M.I.L.E.S. relies on its volunteers to keep it running. According to Monty, 486 of them put in over 1,200 hours last year.

For funding, the program relies on donors, grants, sponsors and the United Way in addition to events like next weekend's horse show, which will include both S.M.I.L.E.S. students and anyone who has paid the entry fee.

Although it does contribute to supporting the program in this way, the show is much more than a fundraiser.

"It's also a good chance for the riders to show off," said Monty.

Robyn, who won a first place trophy last year, brought it to Lakeland School to show her appropriately impressed classmates. She still dons a proud smile when she talks about it.

"When I first started, I wasn't too good," she said. "Now I'm great!"

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