For many children, sports are an important part of growing up. The fun of the game, the thrill of the competition, the lasting friendship of the team form an indelible imprint that lasts a lifetime.
But for children with special needs, that often wasn't an option until a couple from Slinger opened "Rides and Reins," a program that provides therapeutic horseback riding for special needs children and gives them a sport of their own.
News/Talk 1130 WISN's Dan O'Donnell reports:
Nadine, a 15 year-old girl who suffers from Rhett Syndrome, regularly attends the Rides and Reins Center with her mother, Angie.
"Part of her disorder is a delay," Angie says. "So if she would go out and play soccer, someone would kick her the ball and she would think, 'Oh, there goes the ball.' There would be that extra delay, and it just wouldn't work out with timing."
Nadine, though, has now found a sport she can play, and so have children just like her all across Southeast Wisconsin--horseback riding--and it's all thanks to Don and Renee Elias.
"The satisfaction I get from the children and seeing the looks on their faces is worth all the money in the world."
The couple has run the Rides and Reins Therapeutic Riding Center from their horse farm in Slinger for the past 12 years.
"When the parent signs up the child and gets the doctor's release that it's okay for them to ride," Renee explains,"they come for their appointed time. If they can, they help get the horse ready with a little grooming and tacking, and then if they need assistance, they get on the horse or pony."
"Depending on what their needs are, we coordinate the particular program for the child to help them."
"We saw a real need for children with special needs," Don adds, and his wife concurs.
"We wanted to set up the program as a non-profit and free to the parents because so many of the parents have lower incomes," she says. "They're in great need."
Not as great, though, as their children, who have a need to take part, to fit in, to play.
Carla Bublitz's three year-old daughter is autistic, and the progress she has made in the year that she has been riding has been astounding.
"What we have seen is, besides her verbal ability to excel, bonding with the horses brought out her language," Carla explains. "It also worked on all of her core muscles and being on the house improved her motor planning abilities to throw things and catch things and her verbal skills increased immensely every week."
"Probably one of the first conversations that ever came out that she could express what she wanted was about her horses."
Such is the power, Renee says, of the bond between those horses and the children who love them.
"One child who was autistic was six years old and did not have the ability to speak," she recalls. "But on his pony in our arena, he said his first words."
Bethann Ambrose's 14 year-old daughter Kylie is also autistic and has also played, learned , and grown while riding.
"We found more confidence in what she does," says Bethann. "She looks forward to coming every Saturday, and she's also had an increase in vocabulary, learned turn-taking skills, all as though it's part of her natural world. That's a big plus for these kids."
"It is a wonderful place," gushes Angie. "It is fun, but it's therapeutic. It helps Nadine with her balance and her coordination."
"A lot of kids with special needs don't have a sport per se. There are some who might have greater abilities who go into soccer, but for Nadine, this is her sport. I don't think she fully knows how good it is for her."
But Bethann knows how good Rides and Reins has been for her daughter, and for all of the children whose lives Don and Renee Elias have touched.
"Their hearts are in the right place," she says. "They're the angels that these kids need."
How many other people go out of their way to do something like this--just for the love of the kids? And that's what's important. Not many people do that."
And Don says he and Renee wouldn't do it any other way.
"Years ago, when I got into the horse business, I figured out that I'm not going to get rich at it. So I figured, we've got the horses, now it's time to put them to good use."
"Working with special needs children and adults has really paid off--not in money--but in the satisfaction of seeing the difference we make in the life of a special needs person."
The Rides and Reins Therapeutic Riding Center will hold an open house this Sunday (May 18th) from 11:00 AM until 5:00 PM at 4371 Arthur Road in Slinger (53086).
For more information, call (262) 644-8324 or visit RidesnReins.com.