FOND DU LAC — Often it’s a horse that inspires Elizabeth Cropper to speak. The 7-year-old with cerebral palsy is coaxed into conversation by a therapy horse named Aladdin, one of the dozen equines that change lives at Free SPIRIT Riders Inc.
Her brother, 11-year old Tanner, rides a taller horse, Matt, and can expound on the benefits that come from sitting high in the saddle. “One of the best parts is making new friends and, of course, you get to learn about the horses,” he said.
The children’s mother, Angie Cropper of Fond du Lac, believes the riding program has enhanced the quality of life for both of her children, helping for core strength and communicating with the world.
“Leap and the net will appear” is the mantra of Free SPIRIT founder Mary Narges, who celebrated the organization’s 25th year on Saturday with an open house and a new book that chronicles a quarter-century of therapeutic horsemanship.
“In retrospect, I dreamt of being in this spot and was never sure I’d make it,” she said. “Somehow miracles keep happening.”
Just recently, Free SPIRIT Riders received a surprise bequest that allowed the program to pay off a mortgage that weighed on the small non-profit. The arena is being renamed the Marian Kalk Memorial Arena in the late donor’s honor.
The first seed money for the riding facility built in 2002 came from an annual Harley-Davidson ride that raised $155,000 for the organization. “It’s been like that,” she marveled. “I can tell you about 15 other things I wished for along the way, maybe because I believed they would come true.”
Free SPIRIT Riders Inc was founded in 1987 with a commitment to enriching the lives of children and adults with disabilities through safe, therapeutic interaction with horses. The program is a Premier Accredited Center with the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International.
Located on a 38-acre parcel along Highway 23 east of Fond du Lac, the facility is equipped with an indoor riding arena attached with 14 horse stalls and riding trails that meander through the property. Anyone over 2 years old with a diagnosed developmental, physical, visual, cognitive, emotional or social disability is eligible for services.
Through the years more than 700 participants have benefited from the services provided by the horses, dedicated volunteers and a handful of employees who are passionate about making a difference in the lives of special needs individuals.
Linda Schoenauer joined the group through Wisconsin Senior Employment Program as a way to re-enter the workforce. “I was working with a child who was crying and rocking back and forth prior to being put on a horse. The change I witnessed was the most amazing thing,” she said. “When I saw him become calm on the horse and finally utter the words ‘walk,’ I knew this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”
She is currently working toward certification to become a trainer.
The movement of horses is used to address impairments and functional limitations and to elicit specific outcomes for the participating individual. The horse moves diagonally, laterally, up and down and forward simultaneously. This simulates the human walking motion. The warmth and rhythmic movement of the horse quiets and stimulates the sense required for a child with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder to maintain concentration and focus.
Most would agree that it’s difficult to put into words the unspoken bond that forms between horse and rider.
The Stark sisters of Oshkosh, diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy, a rare genetic disease that causes large muscles to be weak, began riding in 2000. Though their bodies pose significant challenges, they live and breathe horses. They draw them and even dream about them. Their story, along with those of many other riders, is chronicled in the Chronicles of Free SPIRIT Riders.
The program currently has 82 participants per week and a dozen horses, with another on the way. The horses are usually donated to the program by people wanting them to have a good home, Narges said.
“I always say we also run an assisted living facility for older horses,” Narges said. “Every horse is a favorite to someone and if a rider comes in and someone else is riding their horse, it can cause anger — even meltdowns.”
An acre garden on the property is tended by members of the Fond du Lac County Master Gardener’s program that took on the project 10 years ago.
Narges envisions remaining with the program for years to come, working to expand programs. Her new dream is to offer therapeutic horsemanship to disabled veterans and help those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“We are all family here,” she said. “and I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. It’s a wonderful life.”