Sydney LoPour has been competing in Special Olympics since she was 8 years old. But when she began preparing for equestrian competition, her mother saw a change.
Sydney, who is 24 and has Down syndrome, became stronger and seemed to have a better memory. Her speech improved, too; she began stuttering less often.
“Sydney was really weak when she first got on Romeo,” said her mother, LyRae Davis, referring to the horse her daughter rides.
“She needed help to get up in the saddle and running. Now, she just puts her foot in the stirrup and she goes up. Nobody helps her.”
Davis and her husband, Randy Davis, who live in the Clover area, had been involved with Special Olympics as coaches since before their daughter was old enough to participate.
Davis said it can be hard for people to understand how much of an improvement the competition can make in disabled children and adults “until you see it.”
Sydney LoPour is one of four Clover-area children and adults who will participate in the North Carolina Special Olympics equestrian competition Sept. 19 to 21 in Raleigh, N.C.
They have been training at RideAbility Therapeutic Riding Center in Clover, which was recently approved as an equestrian training site for North Carolina Special Olympics.
The four will be the first equestrian team from RideAbility to compete. South Carolina Special Olympics does not have an equestrian competition, Davis said.
RideAbility offers riding lessons to children and adults with physical and mental disabilities, with the goal to improve their physical, emotional and social health. The center is at Cherokee Farms, off Jim McCarter Road near Clover.
Wendy Schonfeld, who opened the riding center in 2013 with her husband, Michael Schonfeld, has been working with the four athletes to prepare for competition.
The three other athletes, all from the Clover area, are Robbie McCarter, 29; Lachlan Wensil, 10, and Haylee Nicholson, 9.
Schonfeld said it’s been exciting to work with the group.
“It’s extremely rewarding. Not only the confidence and self esteem that gets to happen with our clients, that’s just tremendous,” she said. “We get to do a lot of cool things.”
She said one of the greatest benefits of equestrian competition for her clients “is walking away feeling accomplished, like they were able to do an amazing thing.”
But there are other benefits, too. Some children with autism show better focus, and those with Down syndrome, who often have low muscle tone, can grow stronger.
Schonfeld said the arena where the athletes practice is set up with lots of visual and auditory stimulation to help them improve their ability to focus.
For example, she said, there are different colors and shapes, music and wind chimes. “It’s very sensory oriented. That’s a big thing with a lot of our kids,” she said.
Schonfeld said through RideAbility, she works with about 42 disabled clients each week, most of them children.
She wanted to get involved in Special Olympics because she worked with the organization in New York, where she and her husband lived before moving to Clover.
“It’s a great thing,” she said. “Kids with special needs need to be able to do Olympic-type things, and Special Olympics gives them that. It allows them to do things they maybe wouldn’t be able to do if there wasn’t a great place for them.”
Davis said she and her husband were coaches with the organization when they lived in Arizona. Sydney has competed in many events since she was 8, the earliest age athletes can compete.
Davis said her daughter has competed in swimming, snow skiing, bowling, track and field, basketball, tennis and bocce ball.
Davis said Sydney had ridden horses before, but she has only been practicing for the equestrian event this year.
“It’s been phenomenal,” Davis said. “She’s only been riding for four months and we just wanted her to do her practice run and she didn’t miss a beat. She did the whole course.”
Schonfeld said the equestrian competition includes four divisions, and the Clover athletes will compete in all of them.
They include the equestrian class, in which they must demonstrate their proficiency in riding and controlling the horse; equestrian pattern class, in which they must guide the horse through a set pattern, including trotting and circling; the trail class, which includes an obstacle course that includes bridges and mazes; and a relay race.
Davis said the athletes use horses at RideAbility which have been chosen for their temperament and disposition as appropriate animals to work with special needs children and adults.
Davis said since training for the equestrian competition, her daughter also is more interested in animals than ever before.
“She’s spending time with my animals at home, when she never did before,” Davis said about the family’s dogs. “It’s changed her for the good.”