ABERDEEN, S.D. (AP) — Even though most Special Olympic events have been canceled this year, people at the Special People Using Riding Skills Therapeutic Center in Aberdeen continue to benefit by riding horses.
They even had a competition earlier this month.
The Aberdeen center is commonly referred to as SPURS.
With the lack of Special Olympics events because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Melanie Frosch, the vice president of sports and competition for the Special Olympics of South Dakota, noticed while talking to parents that athletes have been struggling.
“What a struggle it is for the athlete right now,” Frosch said. “They’re bored, not motivated and sad. It’s so important that we’re able to do something like this. It’s hard for all of us, but our athletes don’t comprehend it as well as we do, and it’s sad.”
That’s why Frosch and the South Dakota Special Olympics came up with a plan to host the equestrian events in two different cities — one West River and one East River.
“We didn’t want our athletes staying overnight anywhere, and we don’t want them traveling in large groups, so we decided Rapid City and Aberdeen would be close enough for folks to travel within a day,” she said.
It was the third time in 15 years that SPURS was selected as a venue for South Dakota Special Olympics equestrian events, the Aberdeen American News reported.
While the plan was for athletes from across the eastern park of the state to make the trip to Aberdeen, no other teams were able to attend.
“It just ended up being the SPURS group here, which is totally fine,” Frosch said. “(The) Aberdeen athletes are lucky they get the opportunity to come out and participate.”
Frosch said the athletes who competed were the first to win Special Olympics medals in South Dakota this year. And the might be some of the only ones.
In all, 19 Special Olympians participated. In order to account for social distancing, the competition was broken into three-contestant shifts. Each group was given a specific time slot.
Even though the event included only Aberdeen athletes, it didn’t stop Ken Bryan from attending.
Bryan, who lives in Montana, first started to attend the annual equestrian event to take pictures of the competition.
“My public excuse is I come here to take photos, but honestly, I come here to see something you just wanna see in the world,” Bryan said. “Every year something different strikes me. Just their focus, drive and last year it was all about grit. In Huron last year it was miserably hot … It doesn’t bug them, they just keep going, keep smiling, the whole works. Just every year it’s a different aspect that I benefit from.”
Not only does Bryan take lessons away from watching the event, he has also become a familiar face at SPURS.
“It’s a family. We always will be. I come out here maybe a couple times a year, but even when we have our masks on we recognize each other,” he said.
Another familiar face at SPURS is Lori Westby, who has been at the center for longer than she can recall. Not only has Westby’s daughter been involved with the therapeutic riding center for 26 years, Westby is a SPURS board member.
“For our daughter, she can’t walk without a walker and now she’s had surgeries. But before she did, she couldn’t walk because her legs would scissor,” Westby said. “When she would get off a horse, she could use a walker and her legs wouldn’t scissor. That warm, fluid, slow motion of the horse just gradually worked out all that tension that she has from her cerebral palsy, and I have it on film. It’s just amazing what these horses do for the riders.”
Carole Weigel, has been taking her son Ryan to SPURS since he was 5. Not only has it helped his coordination, he’s also improved his communication skills.
“The friendship, getting out into the community, the camaraderie of the people and friends, it’s just all very beneficial to him,” Weigel said.
Riders at the SPURS program are as young as 3 and some are older than 70, according to Linda Ellis, a SPURS board member and volunteer.
A retired counselor from California, Ellis joined the board after she moved to Aberdeen and became lonesome for kids.
By her estimation, it takes four volunteers to get an athlete out of their wheelchair, onto the horse and then to help them ride.
“That core strength is missing, so you need one person walking on either side supporting them so they are able to stay upright and a person leading the horse and someone waiting with the wheelchair. It’s a big production” Ellis said.
Athletes in the SPURS program come from different backgrounds including public schools, the South Dakota School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, the South Dakota Developmental Center in Redfield, ASPIRE and Behavior Care Specialists. There are also independent riders.
“Everybody out here is like-minded because they care about being around other people and giving people opportunities and so on,” Ellis said. “Some of them are probably more horse people and some of them are people people, but it’s a very loving group of people to spend time with developing relationships with the riders and the adults. It’s an awesome opportunity.”