Horse Sense: Non-Profit Lets Children and Adults Live Their Best Days
By Adrienne Fawcett
Best Days Happen Here. That’s the mission statement for Equestrian Connection, a horse-assisted therapy program for people with special needs that will celebrate its 20th anniversary at the annual Marty’s Barn Party on Saturday, Oct. 16. In these past two decades, the Lake Forest-based non-profit off the tollway has helped more than 10,000 children and adults -- ages 2 to 102 -- improve their quality of life through 180,000 therapy visits.
Equestrian Connection co-founder Diana Schnell (second from left) chats with a client while a child receiving hippotherapy looks on.
That’s a long road from where Equestrian Connection started, when it featured just four horses and 20 children, including the twin sons of co-founder Diana Schnell. It was the boys earlier experience at an equine-therapy program in Lake Geneva that inspired her to start Equestrian Connection, first renting space at various barns before building its own facility in Lake Forest.
Today Equestrian Connection boasts 24 horses and serves 300 children and adults weekly at its 26,000-square-foot, state-of-the art facility on Bradley Road. Its programs include hippotherapy, therapeutic riding, stability therapy, reconnecting therapy for combat veterans, a day program for young adults and more.
Looking back, Schnell says it took a while for people to understand the value of equine-assisted therapy, but as the knowledge of what it can do has grown, so has the need.
“Sadly, demand from the special-needs population is so much higher due to the increase in autism diagnoses and the prevalence of mental-health issues, particularly in the past two years,” she says.
Equestrian Connection enjoys a strong track record of growing with demand, as it has developed relationships with organizations to fill unmet needs, including Rush University’s Road Home Program for veterans; the National Alliance on Mental Illness; Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital’s Parkinson’s program; Lake Forest Place Memory Care and many special recreation and education programs.
Schnell and her team also are working to provide therapy scholarships to more individuals and families whose annual income is less than $60,000, some of whom have multiple family members who need therapy. Equestrian Connection raises funds at Marty’s Barn Party and through its Adopt-A-Rider program to offer $150,000 per year of therapy assistance.
Schnell credits the non-profit’s success to the volunteers who provide thousands of hours of their time annually. “We could not be one of the largest therapeutic equine programs in the nation were it not for the great community support we receive from volunteers,” she says.
Looking ahead to its third decade, Schnell says the board of directors and strategic planning committee are examining the possibility and affordability of additional indoor arena space to address the waitlist, particularly for mental-health clients.
“I don’t see demand decreasing, as more people face stress and mental issues and live longer,” she says. “We also hope to pay off our mortgage and build an endowment to reduce any economic vulnerability. And we hope to expand our day program as well, as there is a huge need for a program where people can look forward to waking up every day instead of being stuck at home due to their disability.”
That’s where Best Days Happen Here comes in to play. It’s a phrase Schnell and her team hear so often that it made sense to make it their mission statement.
“Best days happen for many reasons,” says Schnell. “Our staff of therapists and instructors truly connect with our clients and volunteers. Many become friends. Everyone connects with the horses in some way as well, from a wheelchair-bound individual who can finally experience movement in their body and see improvements in posture to a veteran dealing with post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) who can join other vets and once again learn to trust.” And she points out horses are welcoming animals. “Horses don’t judge,” Schnell says. “They are intuitive and demand respect but give it back as well.”