NEWARK – Every Saturday morning, 16-year-old Nick Stacy of Marseilles goes horseback riding.
When he first rode a horse four years ago, his parents, Amy and Josh Stacy, didn’t know what to expect. All of their fears disappeared as soon as they met their son’s volunteer assistants and instructors and saw what they once thought was impossible: Their son was riding a horse.
Nick Stacy has cerebral palsy and attends weekly therapeutic horseback riding lessons at Equine Dreams Inc., 9775 Fox River Drive in Newark.
“Nick doesn’t know that he’s getting therapy; to him, it’s just fun,” Josh Stacy said. “We’ve seen a definite improvement in the way he walks. He used to wear out the front part of his sneakers, and now his feet aren’t dragging the way they used to.”
Equine Dreams is a PATH International Premier Accredited Center and nonprofit organization that provides equine-assisted activities to children, adults and veterans living with physical, cognitive and social disabilities. On average, about 70 volunteers and more than 100 people with disabilities participate in equine-assisted activities each week.
All services offered at Equine Dreams are free of charge. The organization operates entirely on public donations, foundation grants and fundraising events. Equine Dreams’ services include therapeutic horseback riding and ground work, sensory trail, veterans program and miniature horse therapy program.
Nick attends horseback riding lessons throughout the year, and his parents used to worry about how the weather and cold temperature would affect him – until they learned about the horse simulator and climate-controlled therapy room that recently was completed at Equine Dreams.
Receiving a $100,000 grant through the Illinois Children’s Healthcare Foundation’s Innovation and Collaboration Tour allowed Equine Dreams to purchase a F.E.I. Dressage Racewood Riding Simulator and climate-controlled therapy room. Planning for the horse simulator project began in August 2017, with the horse arriving from England in November and the therapy room completed at the end of January.
An open house and ribbon-cutting event was held Wednesday featuring a demonstration of the life-size horse simulator, which has been nicknamed “Jude.”
During the event, Amy Starin, senior program officer for the Illinois Children’s Healthcare Foundation, rode the simulator for the first time – it was the first time she rode a “horse” in five years.
“The simulator is fantastic and has the look and feel of a real horse,” Starin said. “It changes speeds like a real horse, but the science behind it is really amazing. You are able to get feedback right away and see what changes are needed to be made and keep track of your progress.”
In addition to helping purchase the simulator, the grant’s funds also were used to build a climate-controlled therapy room. The room allows family members to be present next to the horse simulator during sessions. Sharon Mason, Equine Dreams’ founder and CEO, said the new horse simulator and therapy room will allow Equine Dreams to provide more therapeutic equine-assisted activities year-round.
“Winter in Illinois is very long and very cold, and some of our participants cannot tolerate the cold,” Mason said. “The simulator will allow us to jump-start the overall experience in case there are any fears or concerns. We also can correct posture and balance quickly, which is difficult to do while on a horse that’s moving quickly.”
As one of Equine Dreams’ head instructors, Windy Kopecky said she looks forward to the instant feedback the new simulator will provide.
“The simulator is going to be helpful in so many ways,” Kopecky said. “While on the horse simulator, you will be able to see exactly where the body is positioned by the red dot on the screen. You will be able to teach prep work, posture, position and steering before even getting on a real horse.”
The simulator will also help strengthen motor planning and listening skills as well as instill self-control, patience, discipline and resilience.
Starting in April, the simulator and therapy room will be used by new participants: 56 students from behavioral disorder classrooms from surrounding counties.
In the future, the use of the simulator and therapy room will expand to more participants after the purchase of a Hoyer lift, which will help people that are mobility impaired transfer to and from the horse. Equine Dreams is now fundraising to purchase a Hoyer lift, which will cost about $10,000.
“Our goal is to help everyone became as independent as possible while treating them with respect,” Mason said. “We are so grateful to the Illinois Children’s Healthcare Foundation for helping us help others. Before, the stationary horse felt out of reach and too expensive, but now it’s here, it’s up and running and the room is complete.”
Equine Dreams’ board president and one of its head instructors, Rick Mason, said he is looking forward to having the simulator and its technology help people with disabilities.
“We’re excited about the new simulator and to see new technology implemented because it is our responsibility in this field to be on the technological forefront,” Rick Mason said. “The field of therapeutic horseback riding has changed so much in the last 20, 10, even five years. By embracing the change, we’re also embracing where the field is going, and in the future, we will be able to help even more people in a variety of different ways.”
For information about Equine Dreams or to volunteer or schedule a tour, call 630-553-6950 or visit www.equinedreams.org.