Not a lot of people enjoy cleaning horse stalls, but for Sandy Michalewicz, being in the barn, no matter what the task, is a gift.
"This is my stress relief," Michalewicz says, petting the neck of Nowell, a 25-year-old quarter pony and one of eight therapy horses at the Victory Reins Therapeutic Riding Center in Peotone. "When I'm here, I'm in my playground and my kids are my joy. So this is my escape — to have a good time with the kids."
Getting children with special needs on a horse has been her passion ever since she quit her job in the retail industry 12 years ago to work with horses and kids full time.
"I would volunteer at the Hanson Center Barn (in Burr Ridge) where they work with handicapped kids," she said. "I knew right away that's where my heart is."
Michalewicz opened Victory Reins shortly after getting certified as a therapeutic riding instructor in 2007. She started with five students and now has 50 regulars, kids who are dealing with a variety of emotional and physical conditions, including cerebral palsy and autism.
No matter how challenging the child's condition, Michalewicz will do her best to put them in a saddle.
"I had a boy named Alex who was screaming so loud the first time he came here because he had sensory issues and the noises in the barn were too much for him," she says. "After a while I said to his mom, 'It's not going to get any worse than this because he's already screaming, so if it's OK with you I'm going to pick him up and put him on this little pony.' So I picked him up kicking and screaming and I put him on that saddle and the horse just started to walk. And as soon as he started (to ride) he calmed down. We weren't halfway around the arena and Alex was quiet. I said, 'Hold your reins!' and he picked up the reins. And then he's smiling and we finished the lesson. And he comes here now, standing at the gate and he can't wait to get on his horse every Saturday morning."
(The following is an edited version of our conversation.)
Q: Have you always loved horses?
A: Yes. I always wanted one as a little girl. But I grew up in Chicago and I told my parents, "Just get a horse. Nobody will know and we can keep it in the garage and you'll never have to cut your grass again." I wanted a horse so bad I promised God if I ever got a horse that I would share. I got my first horse when I was 30. It was a present from my husband, and I started taking kids home from church. To me, horses are unconditional love — no matter what's going on they're going to greet you, they're happy to see you, they just love the attention, and I think they teach a lot of responsibility.
Q: Why do you think you feel drawn to help people with physical and emotional disabilities?
A: My dad was paralyzed when I was in grammar school, and I saw him go through all this rehab and stuff like that, and they told him he'd never walk again — and he walked again. He didn't believe the things that the doctor said. ... I always say I'm looking at the world through my father's eyes because he didn't believe the doctor's diagnosis. Sometimes the parents will say, "Well, he has this, so he can't do this," and I say: "Don't put them in that box! You never know what's going to happen and when!"
Q: Why do you think these horses are so good with people with special needs?
A: Because horses don't have an agenda, other than getting food and loving — and the special needs kids don't have an agenda. Through the years, I've seen horses that might be more difficult to tame, but they are so good with these kids. It's like they can sense that they have a good heart.
Q: You've taken in horses that others might have given up on.
A: Yes, people will drop off a horse and say, "I can't afford this anymore" or "I can't take care of him." Some are so malnourished when they get here. So we nurse them back to health and find their potential. ... But it takes a special horse to be patient and tolerant with these kids.
Q: You have all volunteers working here?
A: Yes. I really would like to be able to hire some people to help with the program, but we don't have the funding. We have (handicapped-accessible) Porta-Potties for bathrooms, so to be able to build a real bathroom with running water would be amazing. ... I do free clinics and will let people ride for free. I have a hard time charging people for stuff. It's even hard for me to charge for the lessons. It's never been about the money with me. I worked retail for the longest time and I made a lot of money, but I didn't enjoy anything. With this, I can work 80-hour weeks and it doesn't feel like work. The only time it feels like work is when I'm hurt and then I don't know how I'm going to do my chores. But I don't know what I would do if I didn't have all this work to do.
Q: Do you have a professional mantra?
A: Do unto others as you'd have done unto you.
Q: What did you want to be when you were 13?
A: A mom. I got married at 19 and I was 21 when I had my first child. So I have two kids. My daughter is 31 and my son is 27.
Q: What would you say suffers more: your personal life or your professional life?
A: If anyone has suffered it's my husband. We are both servants — always doing for somebody else — (and) we never take the time to do something just for us.
Q: Tell me about one of your students who most inspires you.
A: Abby was one of my first students. We had to hold her in the saddle. She has cerebral palsy and she couldn't walk. She had poor core support. She started in October of 2007 with us, and five years later, she now runs with her support walker. Her mom let her walk from the gate to the ramp on the uneven turf independently. Those are the reasons why we do what we do — because while she's had other therapies, too, I know that we've contributed to a big part of it because it's not only the physical, it's emotional. This gives them confidence: They bloom. I remember when I passed my certification, you have to write a paper about your strong points and weak points and I said my weak point is that I don't know enough about some of these kids' disabilities and how they affect them. And this man stood up and he congratulated me and he gave me this big hug and said, "Just love them. Just love them." And that's what I've been doing ever since.
For more information, go to victoryreins.org — where you also can meet the therapy horses.