A Better Outlook From A Horse–Equestrian Connection Gives Back to its Teenage Volunteers

We all know that volunteering feels good. But for the young adults helping out at Equestrian Connection, giving time does more than give back.

It builds confidence and self-esteem, offers relief from adolescent pressures, and it reminds them all that life is good.

Located on 10 acres in Lake Forest, Equestrian Connection is a not-for-profit therapeutic riding center cofounded in 2001 by Diana Schnell, a mother of twin boys with cerebral palsy. Her dream was to create a place where anyone could ride, no matter what challenges they faced. “It’s therapy in disguise,” says Schnell. “The horses don’t judge or place limitations on their riders. With every ride, our clients confront their disabilities and defy expectations.”

Equestrian Connection offers a broad range of services including hippotherapy, therapeutic riding, sibling riding lessons, art therapy, massage therapy, and equine assisted psychotherapy. Each week, occupational, physical and speech therapists, as well as certified instructors by the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association, partner with volunteers to work with over 200 special needs children and adults. And that’s where the teens come in.

Some teens sign up to fulfill service hours, others come because they like horses. But it’s the riders that keep them coming back. For many of these teens, this is their first experience working with special needs kids and adults. They start with sidewalking, taking one side of the horse with a trained therapist on the other.

Many move on to leading the horse. Kayla McCraren, a sophomore at Highland Park High School, comes twice a week and laughs when you ask her about the little boy Luke who pulls her hair. “Helping these kids get stronger keeps you grounded,” explained Kayla. “You realize the phone, the clothes, the car, it really doesn’t matter. It’s not just about you anymore.”

A junior at Lake Forest High School, Marlee Berger started sidewalking almost two years ago. “The barriers to normal go away for these kids when they are on a horse,” explained Marlee. “When I see how proud they are, how strong they feel, it reminds me of how lucky I am.”

Marlee loved Equestrian Connection so much she got her mom, an occupational therapist, and her friends Carly and Nick to join her. For Carly Schwartz, a senior at Deerfield High School, working at Equestrian Connection turns even the worst day into a great day.

“Everyone is always on the go,” explained Carly. “Here everything slows down and I have time to appreciate life as it is.”

Hayley Marrinson, also a sophomore at Highland Park High School, is no stranger to special needs kids: her younger sister Casey has Downs. For three years, she has sidewalked, led and now works with the Drill Team.

“I work with the same girl each week. She always asks me how I am, how my day was, but never complains about all the challenges she faces every day,” said Hayley. “What do I have to really complain about? Nothing.”

How You Can Help

Equestrian Connection is committed to improving the quality of life of those with disabilities, emotional illness and paralysis, by providing services that fill voids and address unmet needs with the use of highly trained horses, skilled and experienced therapists and an understanding pool of volunteers. Want to help? You can:

  • Subscribe to Make It Better’s weekly e-newsletter and select Equestrian Connection as the charity who receives the $5 donation.
  • Volunteer your time to be a sidewalker or help with the horses.
  • Visit the Equestrian Connection website and donate to the Adopt a Rider or Adopt a Horse programs, or make a donation in honor of someone special.