Healing on Horseback: How One Woman Helps Others Find Physical and Emotional Relief Through Equine-Assisted Therapy

Daily Point of Light # 5992 May 3, 2017

Meet Daily Point of Light Award honoree Sara Foszcz, who was a Top 30 finalist for the L’Oreal Paris Women of Worth Award in 2016. Each year L’Oreal Paris and Points of Light recognize and celebrate Women of Worth who make a beautiful difference in their communities. Ten honorees each receive a $10,000 grant to support their most cherished cause, and an online vote determines one honoree who will receive an additional $25,000 grant. Nominations for 2017 are now open! If you know a woman who works to create lasting and significant change in her community, nominate her to be one of the 2017 Women of Worth.

“A horse’s walk exactly duplicates a human walk that’s not impaired. For somebody with a physical disability, just sitting on the horse and allowing the horse to move the pelvis in a natural rhythm changes everything,” said Sara Foszcz. “At the same time, it’s impacting the neurological system. Every single muscle in the body, including the heart, including the brain, sending blood up and down the system. It’s such a hard physical workout, but they just see it as fun!”

Sara was still in her teens when, as a budding equestrian, she fell from a horse and was injured. While recovering, she read an article in a magazine about a new field called therapeutic horseback riding, which uses riding and other equine-assisted activities to help people with disabilities.

“I thought, ‘I love horses and I love people. This sounds like the best of both worlds,’” said Sara, who went on to become certified in the practice. She didn’t use her certification right away, instead spending several years showing horses and running a horse stable on a 40-acre property in semi-rural McHenry County in Illinois.

In 1984, she met a physical therapist in the local school district, who suggested bringing over one of her students. After a few years, Sara closed her business of boarding and training for the able-bodied and devoted herself full time to clients with special needs. For the first decade, it was truly a “one-man pony show,” said Sara. “I was the only employee, and I was actually a volunteer.” Now, nearly 30 years later, Main Stay Therapeutic Farm, has expanded to serve six counties spanning Illinois and Wisconsin. It has six paid staff, three of whom are full time, assisted by 150 volunteers each week. Sara has also developed relationships with other nonprofits, including Head Start, Big Brothers Big Sisters, Family Alliance adult daycare, and more.

Main Stay serves an average of 120 individuals each week; it’s clients range in age from 3 to 93, including physically and developmentally disabled children and adults, at-risk teens, individuals in the autism spectrum, and older adults with memory loss, stroke, or head injuries. The organization keeps 14 horses, and has recently acquired a bevy of therapeutic small animals, including sheep, goats, and miniature horses.

“We can accomplish as much or more in the barn as we can in a clinical setting,” said Jean Maraist, Main Stay’s program director and an occupational therapist who has worked in schools, clinics and hospitals. “We can work on balance and range of motion and strength. We can also work on the social skills of being kind to your horse, saying hello to your volunteer and thanking them, as well as all the cognitive pieces, such as following directions or sequencing items from one to four. We’ve had riders who’ve said their first words here or taken their first steps. A lot of that is because they’re more engaged. What’s more fun? Riding a horse or sitting on a therapy ball?”

There’s no shortage of groups and individuals who could benefit from equine therapy, and Sara has brought them all together. Several school districts regularly schedule time at the farm for special-needs students, as have alternative schools. Sara uses creative ways to ensure a safe, productive riding experience, no matter how severe the disability. She has a special ramp and lift, so that people using wheelchairs can mount the horses. If need be, a team of volunteers will lead, follow, and walk along each side of the horse. For elderly people who cannot ride, Sara engages them in brushing and talking to the horses. According to Jean, the experience of getting outside and being on a farm – a familiar environment for many seniors in the area – can stir memories and emotions for those with dementia.

Sara says her secret is to emphasize quality over quantity. “We’re not just ‘Here’s your 20 minutes around the track, goodbye,’” she said. Many riders have stayed for years, to continue improvement and maintain the progress they’ve made.

Michael Deibel, who was left paralyzed on one side following a car crash 15 years ago, has been coming to Main Stay since 2007. “The benefits are fantastic,” said Michael, who went from total reliance on a wheelchair to walking with a cane. “This brain injury took all my muscles and made them like spaghetti. I had to build them up again.” Deibel was a high school athlete, but had never ridden horses. He marveled, “Over time, you and the horse become a team.”

Sara continuously looks for other populations to serve, and has had success with disadvantaged Chicago teens, most of whom have never seen horses up close, much less ridden them. “Horseback riding is something special and it’s normally expensive,” she said. “A lot of kids play soccer and things, but how many, even in more affluent families, get to ride?”

Volunteers at Main Stay – many of whom also return year after year – can’t say enough about what they call the farm’s “magical” environment and the programs’ results. Amy Racette, who has volunteered with Main Stay since its founding, says Sara’s humble demeanor and dedication are so inspiring that even people like herself – who has never been a horse person – keep coming back, “to be part of something good.” Last year, volunteers provided more than 11,000 hours of service with the organization.

Over the last three decades, Sara has shown an endless devotion to improving lives through therapeutic horseback riding. Reluctant to talk about herself, she teared up as she praised her volunteers: “My volunteers are amazing people and they serve amazing people, people that we are honored to work with and for. It’s completely shifted my world.”

Do you know an incredible woman like Sara who’s making a difference in your community? Nominate her for a 2017 Women of Worth Award!

Jia Gayles