Equestrian Special Olympics Held at William Woods

William Woods University hosted the first WWU Equestrian Special Olympics State Invitational on April 5, highlighting the university’s new concentration in therapeutic riding.


Nineteen athletes participated, representing teams from Columbia, Mo.; Decatur, Ill.; Fulton, Mo.; Lawson, Mo.; Pleasant Hill, Mo., and Union, Mo.


Special Olympics provides year-round sports training and athletic competition in a variety of Olympic-type sports for children and adults with mental disabilities, giving them continuing opportunities to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage and experience joy.


Gary Mullen, WWU equestrian studies division chair and associate professor of equestrian science, was in charge of planning and organizing the invitational.


“We needed to have an event like this in Missouri, but we didn’t and many other states already do,” he said. “Also, I wanted our students to have a hands-on learning opportunity. Therapeutic riding is an industry that has boomed in the past decade. Not all of our equestrian students want to ride or train, and we need to prepare them for this branch of the industry as well.”


Currently, there are approximately 800 certified therapeutic riding centers across the country and nearly 6,000 individuals on a waiting list to ride. To meet these rising needs, WWU began offering therapeutic riding instruction as a concentration within the equestrian science major last fall.


Mullen and WWU student Kate Woodard collaborated on the Special Olympics project through the Mentor-Mentee Honors Program. The program was established at William Woods several years ago to encourage faculty and students to engage in joint research or creative projects.


According to Mullen, Woodard was instrumental in getting this Special Olympics project up and running. They served as co-show managers.


“This was a great event,” Woodard said. “It is an experience that has been handmade for our campus. It was a great opportunity for the students because they got to see each piece coming together during the planning and also got to see and participate in the end product.”

This was the first time in nearly a decade that anyone had attempted to create an equestrian invitational for the Special Olympics because of the amount of resources needed to host an equestrian event.


“After presenting the event plan and proving to the regional and state director that the university had all of the necessary resources to produce this event, including faculty, students, horses and facilities, they were on board,” said Mullen.


Before the event, Diane Brimer, central area director for Special Olympics, said, “This event has the potential to reach some individuals who do not usually participate in Special Olympics. It provides an opportunity to introduce more people to Special Olympics and I’m grateful to Gary and his crew for taking the lead on this.”


Comments after the event were positive and supportive.


“Sarah had a GREAT time,” Jeanie W. Byland, mother of participant Sarah Byland of Columbia, Mo., said. “The event was so well planned and we all enjoyed it. I appreciate all the time that went into planning this event. Sarah is still telling everyone about it.”


Laura Jensen, director of Exceptional Equestrians of Missouri Valley in Washington, Mo., said, “Thanks for holding such a wonderful event!”


“Our participants, our volunteers, our horses and I had a thoroughly good time,” Mary B. Adams, program coordinator of Star Time Riders from Pleasant Hill, Mo., said.


“The event was very well done and you all should give yourselves a mighty ‘pat on the back’ for the excellent job,” Paula S. Boys, a participant with Illinois Area 10 Equestrian Team from Decatur, Ill., said.


Questions regarding the WWU Equestrian Special Olympics State Invitational should be directed to Mullen at (573) 592-4280 or gary.mullen@williamwoods.edu.

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Four of the 20 students in the therapeutic riding class at William Woods University pose during the Equestrian Special Olympics at WWU. Students (in yellow, left to right) are Kate Woodard, Amanda Smith, Leah Hohmeier and Corey DeVore. With them are Debra and Jimmy Sue Bible (in blue) and Michelle Conley on horseback, all part of Exceptional Equestrians of Missouri Valley in Washington, Mo.

Kate Woodard, co-manager of the Equestrian Special Olympics, assists Larry Stephens of Columbia (Mo.) Riders. Woodard collaborated on the project with Gary Mullen, equestrian studies division chair, through the Mentor-Mentee Honors Program.

Allie Layos congratulates Amber Gerken, a member of Star Time Riders in Pleasant Hill, Mo., on her blue ribbon.

Luke Bossaller, a member of Exceptional Equestrians of Missouri Valley in Washington, Mo., shows off his bronze medal.