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Equestrian team forms for special needs children
Dylan Starr rides Lark to get a feel for the horse during a recent lesson with the Forsyth County Special Olympics Equestrian Team, which recently formed and is preparing for the October games. - photo by Hilary Butschek


Interested riders are welcome to sign up for the Forsyth County Special Olympics Equestrian Team. Contact (678) 805-7433 or

The initiative of Kathryn Junod and a lot of help from supporters has resulted in the Forsyth County Special Olympics Equestrian Team.

The team is made up of 16 special-needs children ranging in age from 9 to 30. Three instructors offer therapeutic riding time while also teaching lessons in horsemanship.

While the lessons are important, the more immediate goal is to enrich the lives of the riders and their families.

“It just makes them happy,” Junod said. “If anything, that’s the one common denominator. You can see it from the moment they come into the barn and see the horses.”

The ultimate aim of the group is to compete in the October Special Olympic Games, said Junod, who has a child with special needs.

Two years ago, the team was her vision, and she asked everyone she knew for help.

Today, the group, which held its first lessons last weekend, uses a barn with an indoor and outdoor arena and 21 horses owned by Bearfoot Ranch, a nonprofit horse rescue group.

“When everyone pulls together something beautiful can happen, and that’s what’s happened here,” said Darrith Russell, one of the ranch owners.

The barn the team is using has undergone major renovations since it was donated to Bearfoot in August 2012.

From cleaning fence panels and restoring a gazebo in the arena to repairing broken stalls, about 150 volunteers supplied all of the labor.

Russell said volunteers are crucial, since they run the barn and therapeutic horseback riding is not covered by insurance companies.

“That’s why we set this up is because nobody would pay for this,” Russell said.

But, she noted, the results are there.

“What you feel, they feel,” Russell said. “If they have an altered gate, the horse simulates that gate.”

The trainers — Russell and Junod and Edie Ahola — work with the riders to ensure they choose a horse that meets their needs and skill level, which can vary.

Like people, each horse has a different temperament. And one of the best qualities of the horses, Junod said, is that they’re blind to what is sometimes the only thing people can see.

“A horse doesn’t care if they have a disability,” Junod said. “That’s the good thing about working with animals. They don’t see it.”

Junod said the lessons will give team members more confidence, as well as build fine motor skills and self-esteem.

“The animals are calm, and they settle the riders,” Junod said. “They are very aware and very perceptive of the rider on top of them.”

Members of the Lambert High School equestrian team will also volunteer to work with the special needs riders and compete in a mixed group with them during the October Special Olympics.

Later in the summer, a group of researchers from Brenau University will observe and interview the team to look into the benefits of therapeutic riding, according to Russell.