On a little track in a covered arena in Hobart, individuals with disabilities light up as they escape the restrictions and difficulties of everyday life for an hour a week on the back of a horse in a therapeutic riding program.
Exceptional Equestrians Unlimited has been in existence for 35 years, operating on private donations and staffed by volunteers. The organization services individuals with a variety of impairments that range from Down Syndrome to Autism, Spina Bifida and Cerebral Palsy to those with visual or hearing impairments or learning disabilities. It is also open to those who have suffered a stroke or who have had a limb amputated.
Rita Wineinger has been volunteering there for about eight years and is one of about 50 volunteers who help out in different capacities—from maintaining the barn to leading horses to cleaning stalls. She got involved after having a granddaughter take classes at the facility. She also serves as vice president of the board of directors.
After learning of the program through word-of-mouth, Rick Vulpitta of Hobart and his wife starting volunteering. Vulpitta is a side walker during evening lessons. Although he lives just a mile away, he said he never knew the program existed. He’s now been a volunteer for about three years.
For those clients who are normally in wheelchairs or who walk with assistance, the rides can be especially freeing. Andy Cleland said his daughter uses a walker, but the rides seem to make movement easier for her. “You’ll see a difference in her stride,” he said.
Some of the more advanced students have the opportunity to also be part of a weekend drill team.
Over the fall and winter, Wineinger said the weather took its toll on the facility, which houses indoor and outdoor arenas as well as an enclosed quarter-mile track. A wind storm had damaged part of the roof, which also led to water damage. Repairs have been made, but the opening of the season has been slightly delayed.
Several upcoming fundraisers give the public an opportunity to support this worthwhile program that benefits such a broad group of disabled individuals. A pilot program will also start on May 1 offering lessons for those with Alzheimer’s. The regular spring lessons began April 19 for 7 weeks, followed by a four-week summer session and then an 8-week fall session.
April 25 is the Hopes, Hearts and Horses Benefit Dance at St. Elijah Serbian Hall, 8700 Taft Street in Merrillville at 8 p.m. Tickets are $35 per person or $65 a couple. A table for 10 can be reserved for $325. To make reservations or a donation, contact Wineinger at (219) 942-8162. Also to come are a July 26 golf outing, a September pig roast, a November walk-a-thon and the holiday event called “Deck the Stalls.”
For more information on lessons call (219) 510-2118 and to volunteer call (219) 916-1713. Visit the website for more on the program at eeunwi.org.