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Special Olympics to offer equestrian program in Armstrong, Indiana counties

| Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2013, 12:36 a.m.
SUBMITTED Special Olympics bowling coach Andrea Slee, Special Olympics athletes Jennifer Hellien, Nicole Rancer, Scott Reedy and shawn Blystone, and coach Matt Slee show off their ribbons after last year’s Special Olympics bowling tournament at Lee’s Lanes in Vandergrift. The Special Olympics of Armstrong and Indiana Counties plan to expand their programming to include equestrian competition this year.

People with intellectual disabilities will have a chance to participate in an equestrian program through the Special Olympics of Armstrong and Indiana counties.

The organization, which provides year-round, sports training and athletic competition in a variety of sports for ages 8 and over, with intellectual disabilities, is launching its first equine-based program in Armstrong and Indiana counties in the next month, thanks to a grant from the United Way of Indiana County, according to equestrian coach Kristen Kalanavich.

Kalanavich, who lives in Indiana, has certification in therapeutic riding at the state and national levels. She said she plans to offer athletes the opportunity to take riding lessons and will craft the program according to their skill and comfort levels.

“We want to give them the chance to start riding and interacting with the horses and learning about basic care of the animals and basic riding,” she said.

“We'll start with basic walking, trotting and sometimes cantering, but it's individualized, so we could go all the way up to some pole bending, barrel racing and rodeo events.”

Mary Jane Ramer, manager of the Special Olympics for Armstrong and Indiana counties, said the Special Olympics of Armstrong and Indiana counties offer bocce ball, bowling, snowshoeing and track-and-field programming.

Ramer said the organization plans to begin offering softball, basketball, volleyball and swimming programs.

Participating in the Special Olympics' events is good for the athletes' self-esteem and makes them feel like part of the community, she said.

“Not only does it give them a chance to get involved in a physical activity, it stimulates them mentally, since they're learning a sport, working with hand-eye coordination, following directions and working with others,” Ramer said.

Although this is Kalanavich's first time coaching a Special Olympics team, she has been teaching therapeutic riding lessons for the last three years. She expects to coach for the Special Olympics at Winterfield Farms in Indiana.

Kalanavich said intellectually disabled participants in an equestrian program typically leave with a sense of achievement, pride and independence from taking care of the animals and learning different skills.

“Even with something as simple as leading the horse to the stall by themselves, they're doing their own thing, without having to have someone hold their hand,” Kalanavich said. “It's a great stress-free way to have fun.”

The organization caters to 106 athletes across the two counties, each considered intellectually disabled, Ramer said. Participants must fill out a medical form to prove their disability and then are eligible to participate at no cost, she added.

Only about 10 percent of Special Olympics athletes in Armstrong and Indiana counties participate in the games.

“A lot of schools participated in track and field events, but when we moved them to the weekends, they withdrew,” Ramer said. “We work with group homes, but there are those who live with their parents or independently that we don't reach because we don't have a way to contact them directly.”

Each of the organization's four events are held once a year, and athletes are required to train for eight weeks with a Special Olympics-certified coach. The top athletes at the local level are eligible to move on to regional, state, national and, sometimes, international competitions, Ramer said.

Much like athletes, the Special Olympics is in need of volunteers to coach and coordinate events. Ramer said volunteering with the games is just as rewarding for coaches and volunteers, as it is for athletes.

“Our athletes are always so excited — it's easy to get caught up in their enthusiasm,” she said.

Anyone interested in participating in the Special Olympics as an athlete, coach or volunteer should contact Ramer at 724-568-2530, or at, or Kalanavich at 724-388-5272 or

Brad Pedersen is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-543-1303.

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