Exceptional Equestrians Unlimited

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Published on August 18, 2021 with No Comments

Providing therapeutic horseback riding for youth and adults with special needs

by Steve Euvino

Sandi DeVries tells the story of a 4-year-old boy who doctors said would never crawl, walk, or even speak. With no muscle strength, the youth had to be held up to ride the horse. He came to Exceptional Equestrians Unlimited Inc. (EEU) and was introduced to riding horses. In time the boy began moving more and talking. Collaborating with the horse strengthened the boy’s muscles, including his diaphragm, which enabled him to speak.

Today, at age 16, the boy is talking and, with a walker, can walk. 

“This is a magical place,” said DeVries, an EEU volunteer who today is vice president of its board of directors.

DeVries started as a sidewalker, walking alongside the horse and student. “No previous equine experience or special education knowledge,” she said. “I just dove in.” 

For the next 15 years, DeVries has served on a number of positions and now serves on the EEU board.

Put simply, EEU provides horseback riding for children and adults with special needs. Students include autistic, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, emotional impairment, head trauma, stroke, learning disabilities, spina bifida, and visual and hearing impairments. The group has also worked with foster home and at-risk children and Alzheimer’s patients. 

“We want to serve as many people as we can,” DeVries noted. 

Prior to the pandemic, lessons would typically run April through November. EEU averaged 70 students annually prior to COVID-19. Ages ranged from 4 to 60. 

Horseback riding has been recognized as one of the most beneficial forms of therapeutic recreation. These benefits include improvements in self-esteem, balance, self-confidence, coordination, social interaction, muscle tone, learning skills, and posture.

DeVries noted that through the union of student and horse, persons with special needs can reach their highest potential, making a difference in their lives and the lives of others.

 She cited another example of a student who came to EEU with motor skills issues. Getting on that horse was her first time out of a wheelchair and up on a horse’s back. Today she’s stretching, controlling the horse, and her core muscles are stronger.

“It’s made an enormous difference,” DeVries said. “Now she’s moving and more confident.”

In addition to 100+ volunteers, EEU uses trained instructors to work with students and horses. EEU instructors are certified by the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH), which serves as EEU’s governing body. 

“We follow their regulations very closely,” DeVries said.

Volunteers can serve in various ways, from sidewalkers to horse leaders to grooming horses to working in the field or barns. 

Located on 30 acres at 5699 E. 73rd Ave. in the Ross Township section of Hobart, EEU recently had one of its barns collapse in a February 2021 snowstorm. It has recently been razed and building of a new barn and arena are coming soon.

EEU hopes to have the new barn/arena building up by this November.

Both human riders and horses are scrutinized before being accepted for EEU. DeVries said potential students’ doctors must complete a form listing, among other things, health conditions and possible allergic reactions. Another consideration, DeVries said, is the person’s weight for the horse to be able to hold the rider. 

EEU currently has eight horses. They come from a variety of sources, but if accepted for EEU they can spend the rest of their lives with the program. Some are retired show horses. They all undergo a 60-90-day trial period for compatibility.

 EEU depends solely on donations and private grants. The group recently held a successful wine tasting event at Anderson Winery in Valparaiso and has its annual Souper Stride event coming in October.

DeVries noted that EEU helps not only students but its volunteers as well.

“You leave work stressed and come here and it’s mellow. It’s a good place to be,” she said. “The horse mellows you out. It will hug and snuggle and nuzzle with you. Horses are highly intelligent, and they can read people’s moods. It’s really cool.”

For more information on Exceptional Equestrians Unlimited, call 219-945-0726 or visit www.eeunwi.org. 


Souper Stride benefit for EEU

The annual Souper Stride Color walk/Run for Exceptional Equestrians Unlimited will be held Sunday, Oct. 10 from noon to 4:00 p.m. at Midwest Saddle & Bridle Association, 61 N. 450 E. in Valparaiso. This project supports the rebuilding of EEU’s barn and arena.

In addition to a brisk fall walk, the event features free homemade soup, chili, children’s games, hayrides, raffles, and an opportunity to meet EEU’s horses.

For more details, call Ken at 219-743-9620 or Sandi at 219-916-3683.

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