Horse therapy on display at annual event near Darien

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Frank Schultz
Sunday, September 22, 2013

DARIEN—Emma Caputo, 3, sat tall in the saddle Saturday as dozens of people looked on and applauded.

Emma and her mount, Sophie, were performing in the SMILES Superstar Student Horse Show and Facility Open House.

SMILES stands for Special Methods in Learning Equine Skills. The organization provides therapy on horseback, teaching people with disabilities skills that give them fuller lives.

Emma has physical and cognitive disabilities that doctors have not fully diagnosed, said her mother, Gena Munao of East Troy.

Emma came to SMILES in rural Darien at the beginning of the summer. She doesn't talk, yet, but her mother has seen remarkable improvement in her ability to communicate.

“She understands everything now, and she can follow directions,” Munao said.

Emma also has started vocalizing much more as she strives to make herself understood. She had done little of that before getting on a horse.

“We were just going to do it this summer, but we like it so much, we're going to keep going,” Munao said.

Emma has a lot to learn, including the fact that she must wait her turn.

“We're working on patience right now. She gets very excited,” Munao said.

Emma, like many of her fellow clients, rides with one volunteer leading the horse and two others who walk on either side.

About 100 family members, volunteers and guests attended Saturday's event. They saw 21 horsemen and horsewomen display their riding skills.

“Good posture. Good job controlling your horse,” judge Ryan Prince said to one of the riders.

“Your trot was really nice, too. Keep working at it,” Prince said to another rider.

Current SMILES clients are as young as Emma and as old as 67. They represent 36 different kinds of disabilities, said SMILES Executive Director Gay Stran.

Each SMILES client has a plan based on needs. Some need to strengthen their core muscles. Others need to learn to take turns or other social skills, Stran said.

Riding offers immediate accomplishment, while other athletic endeavors could take a long time before success is achieved, Stran pointed out.

Clients also learn from developing relationships with volunteers and horses.

“Courage, self esteem, confidence—that's a huge part of therapeutic riding,” Stran said.

It was apparent on the riders' faces Saturday that the sheer joy of riding has something to do with the therapeutic benefits they receive.

Caring for horses, managing a big group of volunteers and providing therapy on the 35 acre spread is costly, so fundraising is important for the nonprofit, Stran said.

Saturday was the organization's annual scholarship fundraiser. Clients were asked to raise money. A prize of nine free weeks of lessons went to the top money-getter. That prize this year went to Emma, who raised nearly $2,000, mostly from friends at a barbecue in Door County, her mother said.

Munao has educated friends and family about SMILES on Facebook, so there was little explaining needed before friends became contributors, she said.

Geoff Sugden, 28, can be seen wheel-chairing on the floors of at Home Depot or Best Buy in Janesville, where he works in customer service. Saturday, he was wearing a crash-resistant cowboy hat as he waited his turn to mount up.

Sugden has cerebral palsy. He is one of SMILES' original clients and was given the honor of holding the flag for the National Anthem.

Sugden said the organization has made a big difference in his life.

“It's given me something always to look forward to,” he said. “The horses and staff are very, very good at what they do.”

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