Special Olympians champing at bit to compete in equestrian events
Jenny Elmore is tugging on her mother’s sleeve.
“Mom, am I going to be in the Olympics?” she asks excitedly.
“We’re working on it,” says her mom, Susan.
Jenny throws her arms into the air.
“Yes!” she shouts.
It’s Monday evening, Aug. 19, and Jenny is one of five kids from Glenwood Springs, Rifle and New Castle on the Garfield County Equestrian Team. The team is organized, coached and managed solely by volunteers who donate their time, money, expertise and horses to the region’s Special Olympics contingent.
The team meets at the fairgrounds’ indoor riding arena every Monday at 7 p.m. to learn the ins and outs of horsemanship. They are led by Tonya French, an emergency medical technician for Silt Ambulance and Burning Mountains Fire District.
The group is meeting for two months to prepare for Colorado’s Special Olympics event in Longmont on Sept. 28. They’ll “compete” – in quotes because at Special Olympics, every participant is a winner – in working trails, which involves obstacle course maneuvers, and stock seat equitation, a Western-style demonstration of horse and rider.
Locally, they’ll show off their horse riding skills at a community exhibition at the fairgrounds at 6 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 22.
Being a member of a Special Olympics team is truly a thrill, but for these Olympians, there are more pressing matters at hand. Literally.
Team members Jenny Elmore, 17, Amanda “Mandy” Curry, 21, and Blaine Williams, 8, are focusing on the fine art of horse-petting. The team’s donated four-legged members are all receiving rubdowns fit for Triple Crown winners. The horses – Little Guy, Rocky, Missy and Two Socks – are relishing the attention, with ears forward and eyes wide as numerous hands pat them down.
This is the second year for the team, which currently has five members, though teammates Robbie Phil, 8, and Christopher Patterson, 9, weren’t able to make tonight’s practice. French, who also coaches three other local Special Olympics athletic teams, says she’d like to have even more participants.
“We can take up to 10,” she says, “and adults can join us too.”
French worked with the team at Sopris Therapy Services in Missouri Heights north of Carbondale last year, but moved the operation to Rifle when she was able to secure free practice space at the Garfield County Fairgrounds.
“Having Garfield County give us arena space is a huge help,” she said. “We rely on donations. Right now, I’m footing all the vet bills and a lot of the tack. A-1 Traffic donates cones and Erik donates horseshoeing,” she said, referring to Rifle ferrier Erik Kallstrom. “Parents help out a lot, too.”
Tonight, there are several volunteers helping out. Besides French and fellow EMT Ryan VanTeylingen, Krystal Wright and Sheri McNeal have trailered their horses to the fairgrounds and are saddling them up for the kids. And along with Jenny’s mom Susan, Mandy’s mom, Sheila, is here, as is Blaine’s mom, Korine Williams, who also works with Silt Ambulance.
“Because Ryan and I are both EMTs, we don’t have to pay for emergency medical care to be on site. We’re already here,” French said.
It’s finally time for the team to ride. Mandy is first up. Using a stepladder and with the help of five volunteers, Mandy works to pull herself onto the horse. She lands on her horse’s back, behind the saddle. But after a collective “One! Two! Three!,” the volunteers lift and launch Mandy into her saddle and she’s ready to go.
Meanwhile, Blaine notices a sound like a faucet being turned on full blast. He whips around to see one of the horses in mid-urination, which causes Blaine to explode in peals of laughter.
“That horse is going to the bathroom!” he yells happily. “That’s what that sound was!”
Once Blaine contains himself, he and Jenny mount their horses.
The three team members are led around the arena, with at least two volunteers on either side. They practice working trails, as they ride the horses around orange traffic cones and over wooden boards. Mandy looks amazed. Jenny is glowing. Blaine is yelling “Yee ha!”
As the evening progresses, the equestrian team becomes more and more comfortable on horseback. They practice stopping, prodding and backing their horses up. French promises them that if they prove they can control their horses, they’ll be able to ride without leads.
“Riding is so good for them,” says French. “Unlike some of the Special Olympics track events or swimming, riding really puts these kids on equal footing. Plus the connection they get with the animals is a very special one.”
For information about the Special Olympics Garfield County Equestrian Team, contact Tonya French at 876-0968 or 947-8732.
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