Making the Equestrian Connection
"I call it therapy in disguise,” says Diana Schnell, Executive Director of Equestrian Connection (EC), a not-for-profit providing therapeutic horseback riding programs for children and adults with physical, mental, and emotional disabilities and illness, autism, or speech delays. “The riders are working and learning, but loving every minute of it.”
Located in the wooded countryside of Lake Forest, in horse country west of the expressway, Equestrian Connection’s stables and staff of certified therapists and instructors serves more than 220 riders weekly. The tireless volunteers and therapists fill the void of the unmet needs of the disabled through the use of 20 highly trained horses. Physically, horseback riding increases core strength and flexibility, and is most often the first time a wheelchair-restricted young person feels the freedom of movement. But emotionally, the riders connect with the horses and the staff, empowering them to feel control, independence, and self-esteem during their time of therapy and beyond. The letters of the alphabet and color wheels line the arena walls and encourage learning, sometimes without the rider realizing the process. While she’s the first to admit their work isn’t in line with that of miracles, Schnell is proud to mention, “We’ve heard first words and seen first steps.”
In order to fund their ever-growing expanse of programs and services, EC hosts “Marty’s Barn Party,” an 800-person, denim-and-diamonds affair held on the grounds within the arena. The party’s namesake, Marty Domitrovich, was one of the first board members for Equestrian Connection and was instrumental in giving the not-for-profit its legs. All during the time he helped purchase the land, build the barn, and plan the first Barn Party in 2006, Domitrovich was battling pancreatic and liver cancer. As Schnell explains, it was business as usual for the strong-willed man, who often held planning meetings from his hospital bed. The first Barn Party drew in hundreds of local supporters and raised funds for not only EC, but for the ongoing education of the oncology nurses at Northwestern University Hospital. Domitrovich sadly passed away in 2008, but his legacy lives on in the form of the Barn Party and the continued involvement in Equestrian Connection of his wife and son.
Highlights of this year’s Barn Party in October will include a silent and live auction, a catered dinner, and entertainment by “Under the Streetlamp,” which is the Chicago cast of the Broadway hit “Jersey Boys.” All the fun, food, and frivolity on this autumn night translates into providing those with disabilities an avenue to improve their physical, mental, and emotional well-being. Even after 10 years, Schnell still sits back and looks at the barn, horses, riders, and hundreds of volunteers in awe. Each rider learning a new skill or feeling the connection of riding a horse for the first time brings fulfillment to her heart every day. “I am amazed that I am constantly amazed.”
Marty’s Barn Party is on Saturday, October 1, at Equestrian Connection. Shuttle buses will be provided from CDW on Riverwoods Road in Mettawa. To purchase tickets, email [email protected], or visit equestrianconnection.org.