Herndon No fooling. The April 1 Ride4SPIRIT Horse Show at the arena at Frying Pan
Park in Herndon was an opportunity for the participants of the Spirit Open Equestrian Program to show off their achievements to family, friends and visitors at their first event of the year. It was also a time to celebrate a very important agreement between the program, the park, and the Fairfax County Park Authority.
The nonprofit, which runs a variety of programs that provide intensive therapeutic and equine-assisted life skills learning opportunities under the leadership of founder Davorka “Dada” Suvak, late last year was given some not-unexpected, but nevertheless, potentially devastating news. The farm space adjacent to Frying Pan Park, which they had been leasing for years, was being re-zoned and sold to a McLean developer. Suvak and her herd had to find new digs to continue a program which has served hundreds of developmentally and intellectually challenged individuals, wounded warriors, children, youth and adults with a variety of disabilities, and teens and young adults, many able-bodied, who are looking for a way to explore their own potential and make friends of both the human and equine variety.
So, it’s been even busier than usual in the Spirit Open Equestrian Program’s world in the last few months. They have just completed a massive “moving day” project — no easy feat when you are talking about 14 rather large, four-footed “family members” and all of the luggage that goes with them. Most people just move the contents of their homes. In this case, the “homes” had to be be moved, as well.
THERE WILL BE CHALLENGES ahead, “But for now,” said Suvak, “with so much community support and the gracious assistance of Frying Pan Park and the Fairfax County Park Authority,” Spirit Open Equestrian Program will continue its work in its new location on five acres in the back of the park, while a long-term solution is sought. Riders, parents, and Spirit staff are beyond relieved.
“Our 9-year-old son Aaron, has been in the program since he was about 3,” said Brian Roethlisberger of Fairfax. “When he comes here, he gets to spend time out of his wheelchair. This is physical and mental therapy that is fun, and that gives him a real sense of accomplishment.” Roethlisberger added that the parents of the riders benefit immeasurably, as well. “We can network, we can just visit and relax, while these wonderful people improve the quality of life for our children. If the program had to move further out, a lot of the families just couldn’t get here. And I don’t even want to think about the consequences if the program had to dissolve.”
Tom Nystrom, 16, from Falls Church and another program veteran, had a cheering section at the event in older brother Jake, mom Jill, and dad Christopher, as he showcased some pretty impressive horse-handling.
“I am so proud of him,” said Jake. “Go, Tommy!” he yelled out, as Tom and his mount did another trot by the stands.
Amory Blochsom has only been in the program for just a few months, “but he really took to it. He’s a natural,” said his mother Christina. The 11-year-old from Reston couldn’t wait to show his parents the ribbon he was awarded for his equestrian efforts. Asked if he thinks he will stick with the program, Amory answered with a definitive “yes!” The Blochsoms are frequent visitors to Frying Pan Park.
“I grew up on a farm,” said Christina. “This is so special, to still be able to have this kind of experience in the middle of the bustle of Northern Virginia.” It was during a visit to the park that she discovered the Spirit Program and thought she would let Amory check it out. “It’s been wonderful.”
SOME OF THE STUDENTS have graduated to solo-rider status, but there is always a multitude of instructors, assistants, volunteers, and young Equine Assisted Learners (EAL’s) on hand for immediate support. Careful, ongoing assessment means that each rider gets the amount of on-the-ground helpers needed to make their therapeutic adventure a safe and happy one. And, of course, Suvak is always nearby as well, with encouragement, pointers, and praise.
Samantha Thompson is a freshman at South Lakes High School in Reston. She has been an EAL since just after the fifth grade. She recently achieved her goal of being able to assist the therapy riders. “I was too young in the beginning, so I had to keep learning and proving to Dada that I was ready.” Samantha loves to watch as the riders develop and achieve new successes. “Watching them be so happy, that makes me happy.”
Samantha also relishes the growth in her own abilities and the friendships she has made. “We don’t do cliques here. We are really a team, from all ages, all backgrounds, all abilities.” She also loves the fact that many of the Spirit horses are rescues, and they are getting a second chance to enjoy life while bringing joy to so many.
Samantha and others were on duty at the far end of the arena, allowing people to “meet and greet” some of the equine therapy ambassadors. Wyatt and Levi Balthis of Annandale seemed a bit hesitant at first, but before their visit was over, they had both taken turns on top two different Spirit horses, and expressed themselves ready for more.
SPIRIT OPEN EQUESTRIAN PROGRAM offers many levels of therapy and learning opportunities, even corporate team building events, psychotherapy with equines, and an environment where youth can develop confidence, and learn the ways of responsibility, teamwork, patience and empathy.
“There is something for everyone, and everyone has something to offer in return,” said Suvak.
Suvak and her dedicated army hope you will visit them to ride, to volunteer, to donate, or just to spend some time with an amazing community of special people and their special equine friends. Their website at www.spiritequestrian.org tells their story and the services they offer, along with videos of riders and staff at work and moving testimonials from family members of Spirit participants.
Suvak says that scholarships and financial assistance may be available, “so don’t let financial considerations stop you from participating in this wonderful way to learn and grow, and get the most out of life, no matter your challenges.”