Special Olympic athletes ranging in ages from 8 to 62, and horses ranging in ages from 8 to 35, came from all around New York State to participate in equestrian competitions at the 2015 Special Olympics New York Equestrian Fall Games hosted by Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs.
“We had 74 riders from across New York State competing in Equitation and Trail Events,” reported Mary Murphy, Coach of the Capital District’s Edge Club in Ballston Spa. “The riders were split about evenly between English and Western — and we had a good division between levels.”
Murphy said the majority of the athletes competed at the ‘walk/ trot’ level, with 10 riders competing at the ‘walk /trot /canter’ level, and 12 riders competing at the ‘walk only’ level.
The horses are provided by different clubs participating in the equestrian games. This year Murphy brought 11from Edge Club.
“We use a wide variety of horse breeds for Special Olympics, with Haflinger ponies being one of our favorites.”
Each rider had only two minutes to become accustomed to his or her mount before the competitions, a feat not normally endured in regular horse shows.
According to Capital District/North Country Regions, Special Olympics NY (SONY) Program Specialists, Kyle Walsh and Rachel Matthews, SONY follows the United States Equestrian Federation, Inc. rules and regulations, unless they are in conflict with Special Olympic rules.
“Equestrian is an internationally recognized sport offered by Special Olympics,” remarked Walsh. “So, not only do other states have programs but other countries train and compete in equestrian all over the world. Since New York State has over 65,000 Special Olympic athletes you can see why being on that podium is a sought-after result.”
But, according to Walsh, getting there is not easy.
Athletes are required by SONY rules to train for 8 weeks, and Equestrian is a fall sport in New York State, which means athletes must begin their training starting in July each year. During their training they compete in local competitions. Those results determine who earns the opportunity to compete at the State Fall Games. “The drive and focus required to have that experience is a lesson, that in my opinion, can only be taught through sport,” said Walsh, “and you will never meet a more focused and driven group of athletes than ours!”
Training facilities, such as the Southern Tier club, Stable Movements, offer the opportunity for athletes to work with coaches certified with the Special Olympics program.
Theresa Pedroso, owner of Stable Movements Hippotherapy/Therapeutic Riding facility since 2002, said that she has been a licensed physical therapy assistant in the pediatrics field for 17 years.
“I have been to the HARHA Therapeutic Riding Instructors Course in 2003,” said Pedroso. “I am a registered therapist with PATH Int., and I am also a level 2 registered therapist with the American Hippotherapy Association.”
Pedroso said she completed training and field interviews with the NYS Area 14 Special Olympics Director and required references from other coaches, as well. She has been a Special Olympics coach for 8 years, hosting between 25-30 athletes each year.
“We have 3-4 certified coaches that help out and up to 10 volunteers for regular riding sessions — and up to 15 to help with our local judged event.”
NY State Games Equestrian Sport Director, Stephanie Fitzpatrick, works out of her Dutchess County farm in Milan, NY.
“Our farm is called Hidden Hollow Farms Riding Center, Inc.,” said Fitzpatrick. “I have been doing therapeutic riding for 25 years and been with the Special Olympics for 23 years.”
Fitzpatrick says she has a cousin who is autistic and that is what prompted her to begin work with the Special Olympics. “Kids loved to hang out with him.”
“When I graduated high school I went to Kalamazoo MI at the Cheff Center. I was certified and then became a coach for Special Olympics.”
Fitzpatrick runs a not-for-profit therapeutic riding program, where she has approximately 200 riders participating. “They all do not come every week, but at least once a month”
Fitzpatrick, who works full time as an EMT/Dispatcher, says she has 20 Special Olympic athletes. “I love working with my riders.”
“Funding is always our downfall,” Fitzpatrick commented. “There is never enough of it!”
Volunteers are a huge part of the Special Olympic games and this year many members of the Skidmore Equestrian Club turned out for the games.
“This was my second year volunteering for this event and once again I was touched by the excitement from all of the athletes who competed,” said Skidmore student Talia Reutter. “It really is a wonderful event and never fails to put a smile on my face!”
USDF Certified Judge, Emma Griffen, judged this year’s event.
“I was very honored to be asked to judge the NY State Special Olympics,” Griffen remarked. “The dedication and determination put forth by each and every athlete was very clear. As the judge, I wanted to give every athlete the time needed to show me their skills on their mount and I was thrilled to see such great response and results. The show ran beautifully and took a great amount of volunteers to have it run so smoothly. The Special Olympics is very close to my heart as my sister has participated in many past venues. The joy each athlete gains is clearly seen on every face as their accomplishments are rewarded with medals. I congratulate every athlete their and wish them all many more happy rides with their equine partner!”