It’s hot, it’s buggy, and it’s summer in Aiken, South Carolina, the quaint horse town familiar to all types of horse people from the Carolinas and beyond. Despite the 90 degree blanket of heat, Wendy Schonfeld of Clover, SC is trucking on. She and her business partner, Nicole Pioli, have a horse show to run. Two years ago, together they began the South Carolina Special Olympics Equestrian Program.

Special Olympics The Carolinas Equestrian 01Wendy, a former chiropractor turned certified Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH Intl.) instructor, runs her business RideAbility in Clover, SC, serving 84 clients between ages four and 74. Nicole calls Aiken home, and she has combined her degrees in Public Health and Social Work with her love of horses to serve as the program and volunteer coordinator at Great Oak Therapeutic Riding Center.

Wendy and Nicole crossed paths years prior in New York before they both settled in South Carolina, where they have built up the state’s Equestrian Special Olympics program, after it lay dormant for almost a decade. The annual horse show hosted at Bruce’s Field, is not an event to “climb the levels,” says Wendy, “but to prove the rider’s ability and most importantly to encourage teamwork and sportsmanship among participants.” The horse show is an extension of the work and therapy these athletes practice at their riding centers. This year, 40 riders are showing representing six areas around the state.

The show spans two days with various events, starting with the first day holding the divisioning class. During divisioning, the judge and trainers watch each rider perform to the best of their ability to determine if their registered level for the weekend is appropriate to provide the best outcome possible. “[We] do this to make sure everyone is safe; to make sure they have the support,” Nicole explains, “they are placed in a class that will best suit their needs that particular day.” Athletes of all sports can feel nerves during a performance, some can be powered through, but otherst can affect a persons’ physical capabilities. Within four types of classes, English equitation and trail, or Western equitation and trail, riders at this show have the option to perform independently or with aid. The trotting levels are done independently.

Upon entrance into the Special Olympics equine programs, riders must complete a 10-week training foundation. Lessons are commonly a combination of groundwork and mounted activities. Riders working with PATH Intl. programs, such as RideAbility and Great Oak, are open to anyone with disabilities. Today their members exceed 69,000 children and adults, along with over 6,700 veterans and active-duty military. Members are using equine therapy to benefit sensory, physical, emotional, and cognitive disabilities, along a vast spectrum. Wendy and Nicole not only facilitate riders introduction into the program, but certify other instructors and prepare horses for this unique job. Horses undergo a two month training period before they are cleared for use in therapeutic riding. At RideAbility, most horses are donated, with several remaining privately owned.

Special Olympics The Carolinas Equestrian 04

Day two of the show is for riders to perform in front of their teammates and families, demonstrating the progress made in their lessons throughout the year. Riders are adorned in matching shirts made for the event, when not wearing their show attire. The horse show judge this year is USEF ‘r’ rated eventing judge, Lela Wulf. She too is donating her time and skill to participate in this showcase of hard work.

This second day of the show, the grounds at the Aiken Horse Park, Bruce’s Field, are groomed and manicured, with a long white tent between main rings, and pole grids set in place. Horses are in the warmup areas, getting gulps of water ringside, and touchups in the shade before their riders show. Families are drinking smoothies from the food vendor and tailgating in the tents. Riders are walking courses with their trainers. The setting is not unlike the various other shows hosted on these grounds. Hunter Jumper, Eventing, and Dressage events tend to use the facility more frequently, though the gate at Bruce’s Field is open to all.

Special Olympics The Carolinas Equestrian 02

The mission of the Aiken Horse Park Foundation, created by Bruce Duchossois upon his passing, is to promote Aiken’s equestrian way of life and to encourage the community’s civic, educational, and charitable endeavors. Upholding Bruce's legacy, Wendy and Nicole have brought their own type of horse show to the venue. These riders may not be interested in the extension of a trot, or how fast they jump a set of obstacles, but they are showing their abilities just as any rider at any horse show is. After a full day of classes, the rider’s with ribbons and the horses with sweat marks, everyone is back in the barns. Sun dipped and pink cheeked, these teams can head home and prepare for their horse show hangovers on Monday.

Wendy Schonfeld and Nicole Pioli have accomplished their intentions of hosting such an event. Their commitment and energy is transmitted into those with disabilities being helped by programs such as RideAbility and Great Oak. The Special Olympics provides a platform to unify the dedicated instructors, volunteers, and riders of the the therapeutic horse community. The Aiken Horse Park provides a space for those individuals to gather. While this is a horse show, the show aspect only provides a small window into proving what this community can achieve when working together.

Special Olympics The Carolinas Equestrian 03

If you would like more information about Wendy and Nicole visit www.rideabilitysc.com or www.greatoakatrc.com. Their programs are always accepting donations to fund horse care and rider sponsorship. Information about the South Carolina Special Olympics programs can be found at www.so-sc.org.