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Melody Chandler/MEDILL

Lake Forest Equestrian Connection uses horses to therapeutically treat the disabled

by Melody Chandler
Nov 20, 2012


Melody Chandler/MEDILL

Therapy horse Shiloh outside of Equine Connections.

Equestrian Connection, in Lake Forest, is a nonprofit founded with the direct purpose of providing horse-assisted therapy to people with disabilities and their families.

Diana Schnell, Equestrian Connection’s executive director and co-founder, says the stable fills a much-need gap: good therapy programs available to the disabled.

Working with an animal is different from the typical therapy experience, riders and their families said.

“Put me on a machine. Boring. It doesn’t do anything for me. Put me on a horse. It’s totally different,” Aydee Serrano, 55, said. “You feel, you have emotions. There’s a bond there with an animal, not with a machine.”

Serrano has multiple sclerosis and has been coming to the stable for two years. She credits the therapy, in addition to her medication, for improvements in her condition.

Therapeutic riding instructor Reena Delanerolle said the special thing about equine therapy is that it addresses not only physical issues but emotional ones as well.

The bond that forms between human and horse is a strong motivating force in the therapy, she said.

“It’s not just about us. It’s about the horse and the rider and how do we make that happen,” Delanerolle said.

Riders (or parents of riders) are asked to pay between 50 percent and 60 percent of riding fees, and more if they can. But if they cannot pay, they can request special funding, Schnell said.

Equine Connection has a program called Adopt-A-Rider, in which riders in need of financial support are matched up with donors who support their therapy at the stable.

“We made that decision because we realized that the cost of raising a disabled child is roughly three times that of raising a, quote, regular child. So, even parents with some jobs and insurance would need assistance to pay for therapy, possibly. So, we wanted to make sure that everyone had access to this therapy,” Schnell said.

Beyond equine therapy, Equestrian Connection also offers a sensory room, an art therapy room and a massage therapy room.

The 26,000-square-foot barn with indoor and outdoor riding arenas and two miles of trail offers numerous programs for disabled riders and family.

For example it has several group riding programs, like:
• MS group (for riders with multiple sclerosis)
• Desperate Horsewives (a support group for mothers and caretakers of disabled riders)
• Sibling Connection
• Job Training (people with special needs learn job skills at the stable and how to work with others)
• Drill Team (riders work together as they perform tasks)

Its main therapy treatments, though, are hippotherapy and therapeutic riding.

Therapeutic riding teaches riding skills, whereas hippotherapy is more about delivering therapy through the horse and using it as a medium, said Dr. Colette Collins, Equestrian Connection’s program director and a clinical psychologist and therapeutic riding instructor.

“A lot of times for me as a psychologist, when you’re sitting in a therapy room and you’re looking at each other, it can be a little intimidating to a client, it can feel a little bit cold sometimes. But, you come in and get them brushing the horse and they connect with you, and you connect with them and their defenses melt down,” Collins said.