Horses are known to be therapeutic, which is what prompted Lisle-based Giant Steps, a nonprofit organization serving autistic individuals, to start an equine therapy program that will kick off this summer in Sugar Grove.
"As the research indicates, horses influence people in a way that is unique," said Giant Steps Executive Director Sylvia Smith. "The biggest thing is the joy that this brings to participants who typically would never get this kind of opportunity."
On the grounds of Rich Harvest Farms, participants who are enrolled in the Giant Steps adult program Canopy will be the first equine riders. The students are 22 and older who have aged out of state-funded programs.
Riding the horses will not cost them anything additional; it's covered in the daily fees they pay for weekly activities that can include anything from planting and harvesting vegetables to playing modified golf.
"We're a little bit of an oasis for them," Smith said. "We don't insist that they come five days a week. They can come whenever they want to come, depending on their personal situation."
The equine therapy program will offer the students many benefits, Smith added.
"It's a wonderful experience for them, and we're so thrilled that we have this opportunity through the Rich family to offer this resource," Smith said.
The horses are fed and cared for by the Rich family, according to Sara Carley, a Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International certified instructor in charge of training the horses and getting them ready for autistic riders.
Similar facilities offering equine therapy can charge around $1 per minute to ride horses, Carley said, but through fundraisers, Giant Steps may be able to continue to offer the service for free.
"It would be great if we could," Carley said.
Carly said that for autistic individuals who have difficulty walking, riding the horses can simulate a person's natural gait. Additionally, she said, "it provides core strength, balance, coordination and, cognitively, it can help with following directions and multistep tasks."
Emotionally and socially, working with horses builds teamwork. Horses and participants can become very attached, too.
"One of the coolest things for the students who are nonverbal is that the horse is the master of nonverbal communication," Carley said. "A lot of students form a bond with the horse because it's all about your attitude and body language."
There are 11 horses at the property. Currently, Carley is training five of them for the equine therapy program. They include two foxtrotters, two Morgan Haflingers and an Appaloosa, all of which are of a calm demeanor. They used to be trail riding horses, she added.
This month, Carley is working with the horses to build up their physical endurance and get them used to unexpected movements and sounds the students may exhibit.
"These are things a horse isn't used to," Carley said.
Meanwhile, she's working on paperwork to enable individuals with disabilities to ride them.
"My goal for the participants at Giant Steps is that by their summer session in June we can start having groups come out and doing work with the horses on the grounds," Carley said.
By fall, she hopes the students will be able to start riding them.
Work may include brushing and grooming, leading them around, and figuring out what saddles they might use. The students will also practice mounting a fake horse -- a barrel raised off the ground -- so that they can make a smooth transition to actual horse riding.
Last year, Smith organized a pilot program that was well received. The idea for the program came from Christine Thornton Weiner, the aunt of 23-year-old Erica Thornton, a Canopy student who had participated in an equine therapy program in Inverness.
Weiner, former president and chairman of the board at Giant Steps, saw the therapeutic benefits that horse riding had on her niece and was instrumental in starting the program.
"She championed it," Smith said, adding that Weiner passed away in November 2016.
"We're planning on naming the equine program after her," Smith said. "We want to honor her with that because she was such a catalyst."
The new name will be announced in October at Hotel Indigo in Naperville at a gala event, Smith said.
How people can help
Upcoming fundraisers will be held to benefit the equine therapy program, one of which is the Sugar Grove Corn Boil festival held in July.
"They've asked us to be the charity for the event and they'll sponsor us," Smith said. "We'll be in the parade and be highlighted."
There are also volunteer opportunities available. People can help with the horses and students. While horse experience is not necessary, Giant Steps will try to recruit volunteer students enrolled in the Waubonsee Community College equine therapy program.
"All volunteers will go through a training program," Smith said. "They'll be prepared and have updated training periodically."
Once the students in the Canopy program have worked with the horses for a while, the plan is to open up the program to autistic students at Turning Point in Naperville.
"We want to pass this on," Smith said. "We want things that we do and things that we've learned to be shared with the greater autism community."
More information is available at http://campaigns.mygiantsteps.org/dreams.