At FarmVet, we support equestrians at all levels of competition and so we were thrilled to learn of a program that is focusing on creating inclusive opportunities for riders with intellectual disabilities. We interviewed Lauren Reischer from Special Olympics New York to learn more about their equestrian program and the Inaugural Summer Show Series, of which FarmVet is a proud sponsor.
Q1. What is your involvement in the organization, and how did you get involved initially?
Answer: I work at Special Olympics New York as Associate Director of Development! I started with the organization almost one year ago. This is my first “big girl job” post-college (I graduated from Brown University in May 2021), and oh man, it sure is rewarding! My job is to work on a variety of our organization’s fundraising initiatives. This includes activities such as securing corporate sponsorships and event planning.
Although my day job is working in Development, from the first time I saw our equestrian athletes ride, I was determined to become an equestrian coach. I’m a lifelong rider myself. I was born with Cerebral Palsy, and learned to walk by first learning to ride. I felt an instant connection to our equestrian athletes and knew I had to get involved outside my day job.
Over the winter and spring (equestrian is a summer/fall sport at Special Olympics New York), I completed the training and certifications necessary to become a coach and started my own training club! My training club, the Hot To Trots, runs our program in Howard Beach, Queens out of GallopNYC. GallopNYC is a therapeutic riding program based in the five boroughs of NYC — the very program that gave me my start.
Q2. What makes Special Olympics unique from other experiences riders get in similar riding programs?
Answer: Several incredible characteristics distinguish the equestrian program at Special Olympics New York (SONY) from other programs. The primary difference is that the program we offer at SONY is NOT therapeutic riding. To some, this is confusing because many of our riders start out riding with support from leaders/side-walkers. This very closely resembles what is usually offered in therapeutic riding. But to us, this is just a stepping stone to higher levels. Our prerogative is to push our riders to wherever their abilities can take them. And, if we need to create programming to match our athletes’ rising abilities, we will. This lends itself to our competition offerings.
In that same vein, to enroll in any SONY sports training, athletes must understand that from the beginning, they are training for competition. Many assume that riders with disabilities either “can’t” or “shouldn’t” ride in competitions. Or, they assume that the competitions riders with disabilities participate in should be treated as “recitals”, insinuating that every rider should get a blue ribbon. However, our mission at SONY is to offer our athletes opportunities to participate in authentic competitions. Our athletes get the chance to not only taste victory but also overcome defeat.
Q3. What do your members have to provide in order to participate in lessons, horse shows, etc.?
Answer: Absolutely NOTHING!! This is the other main quality that distinguishes us from other programs. The other piece of our mission is that ALL our training & competition opportunities are completely cost-free for the athletes. For our equestrian program, we’re covering the costs of ALL our athletes’ riding lessons, show clothes, stabling, entries, braiding, feed, shavings, and horse care supplies. We also cover USEF and USHJA memberships, meals and accommodations during travel, shipping to and from horse shows, and more. But as all horseshow-goers can imagine, this is a tremendous expense.
We rely on fundraising to underwrite all these costs. At SONY, we understand that being an athlete with a disability is a huge barrier to entry on its own, so we ensure that finances don’t interfere with any of our athletes’ access to opportunities. All they need to provide is their appropriate enrollment paperwork and a good attitude!
Q4. We hear your riders are competing in some prestigious shows this year. How is this year different, and how did it come together?
Answer: Yes, we are! It is such an honor to tell you about our Inaugural Summer Show Series. Until this year, all the horse shows we offered to our equestrians were, for lack of a better term, “home shows.” These shows are run by and take place at the various barns and facilities across New York State that generously host our training programs. However, we noticed that many of our top riders tend to leave our SONY equestrian program when they are ready to learn to jump.
Many of our venues cannot offer this level of competition due to their own facilities’ parameters. So, the Inaugural Summer Series was created with the help of our Program Staff and our Equestrian Sports Director, Steve Williams. This show series was born partly out of necessity so we can remain committed to not putting a “cap” on our athletes’ talent.
Additionally, when I saw for myself how talented our riders are, I knew they belonged at rated shows. SONY is all about inclusion. We try to unify our athletes’ experiences with the mainstream world of sports as much as possible. We want our riders to have the opportunity to enjoy and experience rated or away horse shows. Our goal is for them to be seen and welcomed by the larger horse-showing community! Personally, I see this program as great growth for USEF’s DEI Action Plan. This aims to increase the representation of people with disabilities, among other historically marginalized identities, in the equestrian community.
About The Inaugural Summer Show Series
The Inaugural Summer Show Series is a pilot program offering our top riders the chance to ride at a higher level of competition than we have ever offered before – in a signature Special Olympics New York exhibition at USEF-rated horse shows. SONY equestrian athletes will compete in Equitation on the Flat, and Equitation Over Fences (crossrails). The shows offer this division as an exhibition (not a USEF-rated division) with the restriction that entries are only open to existing SONY athletes. Then, we enter our riders just like any other competitor.
This season we have shown at Saratoga Horse Show WIB Week and HITS Saugerties VI. Our show season will conclude at the Hampton Classic Horse Show on Saturday, September 3rd. To start, we have four outstanding athletes competing in this Series. We are so excited to grow our presence at more shows in New York and work on cultivating more of our athletes to this higher level now that our program is off the ground!
Q5. What was it like for the riders to be a part of A shows like Saratoga, HITS, and the Hampton Classic? What is their excitement level like?
Answer: Our riders are THRILLED to get to be a part of each of these spectacular shows! From the moment they arrive at the showgrounds they are buzzing with excitement and gratitude. They always go out of their way to give personal thanks to each judge, steward, and horse show manager they encounter. They bring their game faces when it’s time to go in the ring, but above all else, they are simply excited to have the opportunity. For them, the ribbons and medals come second to having a great overall experience.
Q6. How do the riders feel about riding and competing with a horse they’ve never met? Was there a matching process, or where do you find horses that you and your riders are comfortable taking to A level shows?
Answer: Our riders are absolutely fearless! They are so excited just to be at the show that they wouldn’t even bat an eye about riding a blind, three-legged donkey! The ONLY requirement for a horse that is going to carry one of our riders is: QUIET! It doesn’t need to be fancy, it doesn’t need to have lead changes – it just needs to be safe. The trial-and-error portion of fitting the rider to the right horse is one reason why we arrive at each show a few days before the division shows. So far, every combination has been a winning one!
Meet a Few of the Horses
Two of the horses we used at Saratoga & HITS were provided by a dear friend of mine, Laurie Lynn Scott. Her two horses are Fargo and Celebrate – a retired Grand Prix Jumper and retired Large Junior Hunter with impressive records at every major horse show! Those two go around the ring with their eyes closed, and they each took impeccable care of their riders every single time in the ring.
Our lineup also featured Tarzan, a polo pony generously shared with us by the Saratoga Polo School! He was never at a horse show before but played over some crossrails in the polo fields at home. So far, he has actually been the quietest of all the horses we’ve used. He packed his rider, Ella Hoffman, to Division Champion at Saratoga like a lifelong short stirrup pony. His roached mane may have earned the doubtful eye of some trainers in the schooling ring, but by the end of each show folks are lining up to ask about setting up trials. (Sorry guys, he’s not for sale!)
Q7. What does a typical day at the show look like for your riders?
Answer: Our show days are quite long! We don’t bring any grooms with us, so we ask everyone to pitch in on the work. Yep, that includes our athletes. They come hours before they ride to clean their own tack, polish their own boots, groom their horses, muck stalls, and refill waters… all without a peep. And, after the prize giving is over, they do it all again! They bathe their horses, clean stalls, wipe down tack, help pack hooves, and more. They are really committed to the entire experience of making the most of their time at each show. If there’s downtime, you’ll find our riders ringside watching the other divisions, exploring the boutiques, and having a snack. They truly do it all!
Q8. If your riders aren’t competing at one of those A level shows, what other opportunities do they have to compete throughout the year?
Answer: Typically, barns that host our SONY equestrian program will host a horse show for the athletes who train there. They sometimes even invite a neighboring SONY training club to come and compete. Outside of the Summer Series, a very exciting show opportunity for equestrian athletes of all abilities is our Fall State Games!
Fall State Games is held in Glens Falls, NY, and serves as the culmination of our fall sports. Athletes, coaches, and volunteers come from all over New York State to compete! Beyond local or regional competitions, the Summer Series, and Fall Games, equestrian competition opportunities are limited outside of their designated season. However, many athletes enroll and compete in other sports every season.
Q9. If someone wants to get involved or donate, how would they do that?
Answer: There are SO many opportunities! We are ALWAYS looking for volunteers and coaches! Anyone interested in starting a Special Olympics New York equestrian training club in their barn should reach out to Director of Program, Lindsey Coyle at email@example.com. For volunteer opportunities, check out our website. Here, you can see where we may need volunteers at upcoming events in each region of New York. Our website is also a great place to make a donation.
Or, for specific questions or inquiries about how to donate, anyone is welcome to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. My inbox is always open, and it would be wonderful to hear from you! We are actively trying to gather support and sponsorships for the Summer Series. Donations of any size are a huge help!
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