9 Clover-area equestrians head to Special Olympics

Special Olympic athlete, Haylee Nicolson with coach Michael Schonfeld, is one of nine equestrian athletes who will compete in a Special Olympics in Raleigh, N.C., this weekend.
Special Olympic athlete, Haylee Nicolson with coach Michael Schonfeld, is one of nine equestrian athletes who will compete in a Special Olympics in Raleigh, N.C., this weekend.

Two years ago, 11-year-old Bryan Wensil started riding horses. His mother, Cynthia Stansell, has been amazed at the transformation in her special needs son.

His confidence exploded, his school work improved and he developed an ability to follow multiple directions, Stansell said, something Bryan had trouble with before.

Bryan, who has high-functioning autism with sensory integration dysfunction and ADD, is one of nine children and adults from RideAbility therapeutic riding center in Clover who will compete in a Special Olympics equestian competition this weekend in Raleigh, N.C.

Wendy Schonfeld, who owns the center with her husband, Michael, said the athletes will be competing against 120 other Special Olympic equestrians in the state games.

RideAbility, which offers a therapeutic riding program to children and adults with a wide range of physical, mental and emotional disabilities, is an approved Special Olympics equestrian training center.

Schonfeld said the Special Olympians have to complete a 10-week training program to participate in the games. They also qualify by meeting proficiency standards on horseback.

Stansell said her son will be competing in the N.C. equestrian Special Olympics for the second year. This year, she said, he’ll compete without a leader or side walkers.

“He has progressed so far in the last year, he can control his horse,” Stansell said. “He’s not up to a canter yet, he just walks and trots, but he is working on a canter.”

Stansell said when her son started school, he had trouble following two-step directions.

“Wendy can now give him 13, 14 steps on a pattern and he can ride it and do it,” Stansell said. “His confidence has soared to the point where he is like, ‘I can do things.’ And his school work has improved because his confidence has soared.”

Ten-year-old Haylee Nicholson, another RideAbility student, also will attend the competition for the second year. Her mother, Dawn Nicholson of Clover, said Haylee “has made leaps and bounds” through her riding.

“Her focus has just gone through the roof,” Nicholson said. “Before, she couldn’t sit still for five minutes. She couldn’t look you in the eye. Now, she is following directions.”

Nicholson said she notices a difference in her daughter’s behavior when she isn’t around the horses.

“If she misses a week of riding, it’s like she doesn’t do as well at school the next week,” Nicholson said. “There is something about the horses that has improved her whole well-being.”

Schonfeld said the equestrians compete in four events, including equestrian, where they are judged on factors such as rider position, horse control and maneuvering the horse.

The next event is trail class, where riders must guide the horse through a challenging obstacle course that they have memorized, and the third event is a team relay.

The fourth event is pole bending, but Bryan will be the only RideAbility students who will compete in that event.

Schonfeld said all the athletes are facing different challenges, but they have come together as a team. “They are really teaching each other how to work together, and that is amazing,” she said.

Stansell agreed. “They are already thinking in that team mode. A lot of kids with special needs don’t think like that,” she said. “They love each other. It’s great to see these children come together and work as a team.

Jennifer Becknell: 803-329-4077