Grasping onto his horse’s mane and pressing his heels down in his stirrups, Jimmy Kipp lifted himself out of his saddle and held that position as he rode over a series of obstacles Thursday afternoon at Saddle Rock Ranch in Middle Island. It’s the last ride that Kipp, 16, of Selden, will take before competing Saturday in his first Special Olympics equestrian competition with nearly 100 other athletes.
“I’m looking forward to it,” said Kipp, who according to his parents, suffers with a mild form of cerebral palsy.
Although Kipp has only been participating in Saddle Rock Ranch’s therapeutic riding program -- a free service provided by the non-profit Family Residences and Essential Enterprises, Inc. -- for a year and a half, he’s already learned how to post, trot and steer a horse, even making it go backwards. But he doesn’t do it alone.
While in the ring Thursday, Kipp and his horse were flanked by Darlene Greco and Britney Eisenzapf, both volunteers at the ranch. As Kipp trotted over a set of pipes strategically placed on the ground, Greco ran slightly ahead on the left side, holding the lead reins, while Eisenzapf kept pace on the right side.
Eisenzapf, 13, of Farmingville, and Greco, 70, of Carle Place, are part of a small, but dedicated team of volunteers at the ranch. The group ensures the ranch’s Special Olympics athletes and participants in its year-round community therapeutic riding program have safe and enjoyable experiences.
“Without the volunteers, we really can’t operate the program,” said program director Anthony Galatro.
This year, Saddle Rock Ranch saw the number of riders registered for its eight-week Special Olympics training program nearly double in size, from 37 in 2012 to 65, according to Julie Dell’Aira, coordinator of the therapeutic riding program. (Sixty-two of these trained riders will be competing in Saturday’s regional competition in Old Westbury at HorseAbility.)
On the flip side, Dell’Aira struggled this year to recruit volunteers, working with half the normal amount.
“It makes doing those [training] sessions much more challenging,” she said. “But we did make it through.”
Picking up much of the slack was one of the youngest volunteers, Jillian Schulz, 13, of Middle Island. She averaged 30 hours per week there, and never missed a Special Olympics session.
“I like everything, from tacking the horses to being with the students,” she said. “It’s like nothing I’ve ever done before.”
Other volunteers look to Schulz for direction.
“She is the boss,” added Greco, a retired teacher and grandmother who has been volunteering at the ranch since July.
By spending so much time at the ranch, Schulz has been able to witness the positive changes in the athletes. Beyond their riding skills, she’s seen them become more social and confident.
“I never thought I could do this before,” said Katy Saas, 25, of Ridge, who had no prior riding experience before participating in her first Special Olympics training program six years ago.
Saas said having the volunteers by her side gives her the confidences to try new things. She can now trot on her own, and even though she fell while attempting to cantor, she got right back in the saddle.
Increased self-esteem, better posture and improved concentration are among the changes Lori Kipp, 55, has noticed in her son, but that’s not all. When Jimmy Kipp arrived at the ranch, he was walking on his toes, unable to place his feet completely on the ground. His orthopedist recommended surgery, she said, but after months of riding, her son can now put his right foot down again and he’s working on the left.
“It unobtrusively moves muscle groups that even the best physical therapist can never reach,” said Galatro.
A relative veteran, Jack Slater, 13, who has been riding since he was three, will compete in his fifth Special Olympics. The Holbrook teen was born with autism and an auditory processing disorder, but his mother, Jami Slater, 47, said riding has improved his muscle tone, posture and focus. He also follows directions much better, so much so that Dell’Aira allows him to ride without a volunteer holding the lead reins.
“He’s actually controlling where the horse is going,” Jami Slater said.
Jack enjoys the sense of independence, adding, “It feels good.”
Greco had a similar sentiment when asked why she drives more than an hour from her home to help riders like Jack, stating, “It’s not glamourous, but it makes you feel good.”
Potential volunteers can contact Dell’Aira at 631-786-9708.