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The Daily Journal

Dennis Yohnka - Enjoy Your Retirement, Buster
11/20/2008, 10:57 am

Reprinted with permission of The Daily-Journal, Kankakee, IL

This is the announcement that hundreds have dreaded: Buster the Wonder Pony is retiring.

Oh, you haven't heard of Buster? Then allow me to explain.

At 20 or so, Buster the Wonder Pony (that's his real name) was looking for a career change. The writing was on the stable wall: His equestrian gig was coming to an end. He was a good jumper, but that's a younger horse's game. Buster, a Pony of America (POA) gelding, needed something less physically demanding.

You're probably aware of the fact that there are no employment specialists for horses. No People Link job services to let him explore some temporary jobs. Nonetheless, Buster needed a new line of work, one that could take advantage of his incredible good nature and his well-honed sense of understanding.

He found that job with Karen Hemza at Sunrise Farms outside of Aroma Park.

"He is always one of the most requested horses here," said Heather Gregoire, an 18-year-old senior at Watseka Community High School and a part-time employee at the farm. "And I think it's his patience and understanding that set him apart. He's a very special horse here."

Now 33, Buster has been cutting back on his work schedule. He's down to two or three days a week. But he's still enjoying rockstar-level popularity with the young people who come here for therapeutic riding. (It's technically called "Hippotherapy," but I always picture a tiny kid on the back of a big hippopotamus when I hear that word, so I'd rather not use it.)

I've always tended to dismiss these intense human/animal bonds as mostly imagined. For example, my wife is sure that one of our cats was acutely aware of her every illness. She was sure that little cat was staying close to her out of compassion. I'm the practical type who points out that this cat would also sit with her belly directly on a heat vent. She was only hanging with her because she enjoyed the warmth of a person with a 101-degree fever.

But I can also step back and be objective, too. And when I saw a new therapy client struggling to get on board Buster, I could see a horse that really looked like he was trying to help the process. There are 20 therapy sessions here each week, and 40 more riding lessons, so there is plenty of work for an ambitious, friendly horse. But Buster is more than that.

"He actually seems to understand the difference between the levels of abilities these kids have," Heather said. "It doesn't make any difference how they grab his fur -- he is a pretty furry horse -- he always reacts the same. Just patient and helpful."

They have about 40 horses on the farm, but only five are part of the therapeutic riding program. Buster, who has the coloring of a Dalmatian, was a natural choice for the program, with or without a professional resume.

"Kids just like him right away," Heather said. "But once you get to know him -- you know he's not perfect. He has this one quirk: He loves to eat. When you try to lead him somewhere, he will always pull you toward the food."

As she spoke, Buster was mowing through a small bag of Cheerios.

I'm not really sure what Buster thinks of his second career, but I'm definitely impressed. The therapists say he has a remarkable calming influence on even the most excitable youngster. They tell me he epitomizes the way horses can relate to their riders with autism -- in a way the best-trained humans cannot.

Buster probably wouldn't want to retire, but Cushing's disease is taking its toll on his stamina. He needs a lot of medication, special shoes and a special diet. His days may be numbered, but he doesn't seem to complain. Seven-year-old Jordan, from Grant Park, was at the farm for a birthday party Sunday and she rode Buster. She thought he was great.

And so do I.

One more note

The folks at Sunrise Farms are good friends with the Kankakee County Animal Foundation. They work with the New Beginnings pet adoption program. They have 12 resident barn cats and 15 really cute cats that need new homes. The stories of these cats' rescues are gripping, but you'll have to hear them for yourself. Just call the farm for a time to stop by and pick one out for your family. They're all spayed and have their shots. And if you stop and get one, you can probably meet Buster the Wonder Pony for yourself.

Dennis Yohnka is a regular columnist with The Daily Journal and can be reached by e-mail at dyohnka@daily-journal.com.

The Daily Journal

Robert Themer - Sunrise Farms enriches children as they ride horses
06/17/08, 10:05 am

Reprinted with permission of The Daily-Journal, Kankakee, IL

For a couple decades, Karen Hemza, of rural St. Anne, has been using her Sunrise Center Therapeutic Riding horses and skills to enrich the lives of children and adults with physical and mental disabilities.

For 16 years, she has owned Sunrise Farms on VanDerKarr Road east of Aroma Park with her husband, Richard, and her parents, Arnold and Dottie Ford.

However, she's been active in the effort since she was a child growing up at Lemont. Hemza first worked as a volunteer in "hippotherapy" -- as therapeutic riding is termed -- for several years at Friends of Handicapped Riders at Momence.

About 30 therapeutic riders a week participate in therapy at the VanDerKarr road stables and others at the second Sunrise Center opened at Morris in 2006 under the direction of Kris Mondrella.

Clients "are of all ages and all different types of disabilities," said Hemza. These include Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, autism, and other mental and physical disabilities.

"We also are offering a hippotherapy session this summer with an occupational therapist who uses the horse's movement as a tool for therapy specifically with children," she said.

Sunrise has a waiting list of children and adults to get into the program -- riders who need sponsors to pay for their weekly sessions, Hemza said.

"We need volunteers to help with the program on specific days, and we also are always looking for people to sponsor riders," she said.

Sunrise also takes riders to compete in the Illinois Special Olympics at Decatur, with co-sponsorship from the River Valley Special Recreation Association and equine veterinarian Dave Fitzpatrick, of rural Kankakee.

For more information, call Sunrise at (815) 932-6170.

~ Robert Themer

Hippotherapy Session
Photo: Nicholas Holstein
Leah Wilbur, front, and Karen Hemza, of Sunrise Farms, lead Victoria Rzeszut, 8, of Chicago, on a trot during a therapeutic riding session in a recent competition at the stables.
More photos from this shoot
Hippotherapy Session
Photo: Nicholas Holstein
Steve Weith, 49, of Bourbonnais, leads a horse out of the stables at Sunrise Farms to begin his therapeutic riding session. Weith has been taking part in the therapy for about 8 years and besides helping him with balance and his fear of height, he does it simply because he likes animals.
More photos from this shoot
Hippotherapy Session
Photo: Nicholas Holstein
Volunteers at Sunrise Farms on VanDerKarr Road in rural St. Anne lead Derek Brinkman, 5, of Kankakee, on a trot during a recent therapeutic riding session.
More photos from this shoot
Hippotherapy Session
Photo: Nicholas Holstein
Annette Kaptur, of Willow Springs, right, instructs riders to lean forward and try to touch their horse's ears as she walks with Naomi McAndrews, 4, of Bradley, during therapeutic riding at Sunrise Farms in St. Anne.
More photos from this shoot
Hippotherapy Session
Photo: Nicholas Holstein
Annette Kaptur, of Willow Springs, asks Ethan Eisenberg, 4, of Steger, questions about the horse he is riding during a therapeutic riding session. To the left is Ethan’s mother, Tonya Eisenberg.
More photos from this shoot
Hippotherapy Session
Photo: Nicholas Holstein
Annette Kaptur, of Willow Springs, left, instructs riders to raise their arms out to their sides during a recent therapeutic riding session at Sunrise Farms.
More photos from this shoot




The Daily Journal

Eboni Neely - Asbury fundraiser to help children with special needs

Reprinted with permission of The Daily-Journal, Kankakee, IL

A special event at Asbury United Methodist Church in Kankakee will give local special needs children a chance to get acquainted with new four-footed friends.

The Music Committee of the church will host a pork dinner and variety program to pay for horseback riding lessons at the Sunrise Therapeutic Riding Stables.

The event is 5-7 p.m. July 23 in the parish hall. Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for children under 12. Entertainment will start at 7 p.m. There will also be a silent auction including a child's saddle, riding lessons and gift baskets. Items are still being accepted. Karen Hemza, a certified Instructor of the North American Handicapped Riding Association (NAHRA), will also give a presentation at the program.

The Sunrise Center, a non-profit facility that offers both therapeutic and hippotherapy riding, is located near Aroma Park. It is operated by Karen and Rick Hemza and Dottie and Arnie Ford,

Hippotherapy, a more passive form of therapeutic riding, is offered through Easter Seals. Both hippo and therapeutic riding use the movement of the horse to simulate the human gait. This strengthens weak muscles, develops coordination and improves posture, balance and flexibility. Therapeutic riding also offers recreational and educational benefits, according to Karen Hemza.

"The unique relationship of a horse and rider can promote increased self-confidence, self-awareness and self-esteem. Therapeutic riding offers a challenge to the rider, and the accomplishment offers a special sense of achievement by giving a positive focus to the rider's abilities," she said.

Therapeutic riding has gained endorsements from both doctors and therapists as an accepted method of improving mobility and creating innovative therapy for a physically restricted lifestyle.

The program needs donations of money, volunteers, equipment or sponsors for a horse or rider, said Hemza.

For more information about the program, call Hemza at (815) 932-6170. For information about the fundraiser, call Coleen Fowler, at Asbury, at (815) 933-4408.



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