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Kevein Conley turns his horse inside a square during the Special Olympics at North Country Ride in Esko on Sunday, July 22. The event tests each rider on their skills instead of against other participants. Jamie Lund/Pine Journal1 / 3
Volunteers at North Country Ride in Esko assist rider Deone Lundquist onto her horse, Misty, as she prepares to participate in the Special Olympics on Sunday, July 22. Jamie Lund/Pine Journal2 / 3
Deone Lundquist (red helmet) and Kevein Conley (blue helmet) take a few minutes to socialize with other participants and volunteers as they wait for the next event to begin. Jamie Lund/Pine Journal3 / 3

Several equestrians entered the arena at North Country Ride in Esko the morning of Sunday, July 22. As the riders circled in the arena, the announcer told the riders what they should be doing. Some of the riders quietly did their best, while others waved excitedly to family members watching.

The Special Olympics Minnesota judges the individual riders abilities instead of having them compete against each other. Special Olympics North Country Ride has been hosting the event for several years.

To qualify, riders need to be at least 8 years old and have an intellectual disability. They also need to be signed up for the program and ride once a week for 10 weeks. The program has four six-week programs every year. The riders participate in equine-assisted therapeutic activities.

"Learning to ride a horse and building strengths help them meet challenges in their life," Executive Director Tammy Horyza said. "Volunteers help our horses and riders meet their goals."

Deone Lundquist, 34, of Superior enjoys the horses as well as socializing at the event. This is her second summer participating in the program.

"I like when the horses trot," Deone said. She is proud of the cowgirl boots she received for Christmas. She also likes to show off the horseshoe earrings she got during a trip to Florida and wears when she is riding.

Kevein Conley, 26, of Carlton, discovered the program in Esko through his housemate. He has participated in the Special Olympics for three years and been to state twice.

He participates in pole weaving, trail riding and barrel racing — his favorite event.

"It's a lot of fun," Kevein said.

Deone's mother, Ceci, praises the program.

"It really brings out her personality," Ceci said. She explained her daughter was diagnosed with sensory motor deficit.

She said Deone has blossomed because of the riding programs. Deone enjoys sharing what she has learned about the horses. Her favorites are Misty and Buddy.

The horses are tested before being used in the programs and Special Olympics.

"The volunteers ride them first to make sure they behave," Deone said.

Ceci discovered the equine programs in Esko through the Challenge Center in Superior. Deone keeps busy year-round by participating in gymnastics and downhill alpine skiing.

"It gives a warm feeling to my heart," Ceci said as she smiled and watched her daughter interact with volunteers and other participants at the Special Olympics.

There were 16 riders and 20 volunteers to help them. Five riders advanced to state, including Deone and Kevein. They will compete Aug. 17.

There are many volunteer opportunities available at North Country Ride. Experience with horses is a bonus, but unnecessary. Visit ncride.com for more information.

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