by Graham Meyer
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MAIN STAY THERAPEUTIC RIDING PROGRAM
Just south of the Wisconsin border, in the little McHenry County village of Richmond, Sara Foszcz’s Main Stay Therapeutic Riding Program exhibits all the usual equine trappings. There are indoor and outdoor riding arenas, a stable stocked with hay, and horses, of course—along with horsy smells. But a few things depart from the ordinary: the Hula Hoops and toy boxes; the ramps and the hydraulic lift; the fenced enclosure with five different riding surfaces.
Because Foszcz works with children and adults with special needs, those hoops and ramps and other therapeutic tools are nearly as important as the horses themselves. For instance, a child on horseback might toss a hoop over a cone as a way of increasing range of motion and core strength. A child with an autism-spectrum disorder might learn to adjust to the unpleasant sound of a horse walking on pea gravel—in the process also learning how to adjust to the normal variances of daily life. “Our goal is to do all the therapeutic activities disguised as fun,” says Foszcz. “Nobody knows how hard they’re working until they get off [the horses].”
Foszcz’s program dates to 1984, when she started teaching able-bodied people to ride horses at her Richmond stable. One of her early pupils was a physical therapist who suggested that Foszcz bring in some kids for therapeutic riding. Foszcz already had obtained certification in therapeutic riding, so she put it to use, taking on special-education students from McHenry County. In 1987, she established Main Stay as a nonprofit exclusively for therapeutic riding, which had migrated from Europe to the United States in the late 1960s. Anecdotal evidence suggests that people who participate in equine-related therapies improve their posture, balance, coordination, and strength, while also enjoying psychological benefits such as increased self-confidence, motivation, and social adjustment.
Today, Main Stay serves around 85 students a week, with three full-time and six part-time staff members, as well as more than 100 volunteers. A single 45-minute session—attended by one or two students, each of whom may be assisted by as many as one staffer and three volunteers—costs only $25. “Our goal has always been to keep our fees as low as possible,” Foszcz says, noting that families dealing with special needs often have high expenses. When even $25 is too much, Main Stay offers scholarships.
Last summer, Main Stay organized a fundraiser called Horses of a Different Color, in which local artists decorated 27 carousel horses for display around the nearby town of Woodstock. The horses were auctioned off at the end of the summer, bringing the total amount raised by the event to almost $60,000—a welcome addition to the individual donations, private foundations, and other fundraisers that cover 85 percent of the organization’s expenses.
The success and scale of Horses of a Different Color typifies how Foszcz’s organization has grown since its founding. Main Stay has always served children with physical disorders such as Down syndrome and cerebral palsy, as well as people who have suffered strokes or head injuries. In the past decade, Foszcz has added more students with developmental and social needs—especially those with autism-spectrum disorders—and has seen the medical community recognize the therapeutic value of her work.
“When I first got into it, I think people thought it was pony rides,” Foszcz says. “To people in the [therapeutic riding] industry, it was never a pony ride. It’s a really dynamic, life-changing experience for a lot of people.”
Photograph by Katrina Wittkamp