by Christine Stewart
Ask anyone at Special Equestrians Inc. in Warrington -- they will undoubtedly tell you that Ebony Boy is the best horse in the barn and well deserving of the Region 2 Equine of the Year award from the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association.
NAHRA was formed in 1969 and has a network of about 800 therapeutic riding centers that are divided among 11 regions. Each year, more than 42,000 special needs students are assisted through NAHRA centers. Special Equestrians was founded in 1982 with one horse and one volunteer and has since grown to 17 employees and more than 100 active volunteers. The state-of-the-art facility is located on 28 preserved acres in Warrington, outside of Philadelphia.
Ebony Boy was selected as horse of the year from six candidates in Region 2. Special Equestrians serves 85 to 90 students each week, and Ebony Boy is an invaluable asset to their program. Anne Reynolds, Special Equestrians program coordinator, noted that while the black Tennessee Walker gelding, affectionately known as "Ebs," is 27, he has the best motor in the barn. One of his unique and valued characteristics is partly due to the nature of his breed – his walk.
"He has that big bouncy walker walk, and his walk is very dynamic. A lot of our students are on the autism spectrum, which gives them a craving for sensory input. Touch or motion, that's what they need to focus," Reynolds said. "Ebs allows our autistic riders to get that focus because he's got that unique walk. It's like a "waker-upper" – he will take a rider very stuck in themselves from disability, but the motion and big dynamic walk wake them up. He's very, very useful to the program."
Ebs came to Special Equestrians about 13 years ago and was donated by his owner – one of the volunteers – when the center was still at its previous location. As a pleasure and trail horse, his owner thought he would be a good fit for the program, and she was clearly correct. Ebs has been with Special Equestrians the longest of any of the horses they currently use. Aside from his great walk and good nature, his temperament and personality also make him a great therapy horse, according to Tammy Westney, Special Equestrians executive director.
"He's a wonderful horse and the oldest horse we have in the barn. He's known as the southern gentleman: a sweet, steady and reliable horse. And, he's beautiful on top of it," she described.
Reynolds agreed with Westney's opinion, noting that Ebs is a "people horse" and engages the students before and after their rides.
"He's going to put his head down and say hi, let them poke him in the eye. He is very into his riders, sniffing them when they're done and making sure they're going to be OK," she said. "Also, with some of our riders, it's a struggle to ride independently if their legs aren't strong enough to make a slow horse go. He's really good for that because he's got that forward motor – he'll just steer around. It's really good for promoting the first steps of independence."
Special Equestrians' program would be hard-pressed to run without volunteers, and Reynolds credited their extensive group of volunteers with a lot of their success. Amanda Schwartz, 15, has been volunteering with the center for about a year and a half. With 11 years of equestrian experience, the young volunteer brings a wealth of knowledge to the horses and riders. Schwartz noted that she wanted to perform community service, which is what led her to Special Equestrians.
"Everyone here is nice, and the kids are great," she said. "Volunteering is really rewarding, and it makes you appreciate what you have – it's the greatest feeling to know you're helping these riders have a better life."
As far as Ebs is concerned, Schwartz agreed that he is the best horse in the barn – well behaved and the definition of bomb-proof. She said that although all of the horses in the barn are excellent, Ebs is something special and is above all others.
In addition to the great horses they have, Special Equestrians is a special center in itself. Almost 50 volunteers – without whom staff says they couldn't function -- help out each week. While the center has nine horses now, Reynolds noted that they will have to retire at least one mount in the coming weeks. Fundraising and donations support the center financially, and they accept equine donations as well. Special Equestrians will hold a fundraising casino night at Commonwealth National Golf Club in Horsham, PA on Nov. 13.
NAHRA will honor one horse in November as Equine of the Year. The first round of judging selects regional award winners. The regional winners are then judged against each other for the title of NARHA's national equine of the year, announced at the national conference, which will take place in Fort Worth, Texas in November.
Additional information about Special Equestrians can be found online at www.specialequestrians.org.