For some, there is nothing quite like the feeling of wind in your hair and reins in your hands, or the quiet moments spent grooming a horse. The smell of fresh hay, the feel of the horse echoing your emotion, beckoning you to leave daily stress and anxiety behind, and encouraging you to accomplish things you never dreamed possible… This is the essence of the invisible bond formed between a human and a horse. A bond that can now be experienced by both able-bodied riders and special needs riders.
Founded in 1985, Special Methods in Learning Equine Skills, known as SMILES, is a nonprofit organization that was created to implement equine-assisted activities and therapies, making riding a horse accessible to all. Each year, SMILES serves 200 individuals and provides over 4,000 riding sessions at their 35-acre facility. The heated and air-conditioned barn provides a comfortable space for children and adults to bond with the horses, as well as reach physical and emotional goals.
“The horse and human relationship is so powerful,” Kim Good, Executive Director of SMILES, explains. “We serve our riders in so many ways.”
Jenny Trajkovich, whose daughter Kelsea Worlky has been attending sessions at SMILES, has nothing but positive things to say about the program. “Kelsea [who has Down syndrome] doesn’t have the social stimulation she once had now that she is 25,” she explains. “Sessions [at SMILES] instill confidence because she knows everyone at the facility, and she can talk about her experiences with her siblings. It is something that is unique to her.”
Kelsea has met significant goals through the therapeutic riding program at SMILES, including core stability improvement, increased verbal skills, and enhanced independence.
“So many things that my daughter does now, like being able to paddleboard with her siblings, she has only been able to do because of what she has learned here at SMILES,” says Trajkovich.
Paul, an adult client who has been riding at SMILES for five years states, “I feel calm and peaceful [while riding]. It helps me feel less anxious.” Indeed, as the rider gains control of his or her emotions, horses have the ability to mirror them, Good explains.
One unique component SMILES offers, is their outdoor sensory arena. Wire cacti give mounted riders a challenge for ring throwing, pretend cattle provide roping opportunities, and the many tactile experiences throughout the course provide unique opportunities for meeting outcome-oriented goals.
SMILES has had an enormous impact on the community despite their tight budget. The organization saves money by growing their own hay and operates on donations, fundraisers, program fees, and grants. Over 400 volunteers keep the organization running. Volunteers help during sessions and around the facility, which boasts a beautiful 20-stall barn, a Western and an English tack room, an outside arena, and acres of land to grow the hay required to feed their 22 horses.
“There is a way for everyone to volunteer,” Good says. “We welcome everyone no matter what your experience level.”
For over 30 years, SMILES has made the world a little brighter for children and adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder, visual impairment, cerebral palsy, hearing impairment, developmental disabilities, Down syndrome, and mental illness among others, and serves the greater Southern Wisconsin and Northern Illinois area.
To learn more about SMILES, to volunteer, or to see what items the organization is in need of, visit smilestherapeuticriding.org or call 262-882-3470. SMILES is located at N2666 County Rd K in Darien, WI.
By Tricia Carzoli