NEWFIELD, N.Y.—For the first time since at least 2010, Tompkins County will be represented with an equestrian team in the Special Olympics Fall Games in October 2023.

The team’s official kick-off was held Saturday, May 13, on a sunny morning on the grounds of a Newfield, introducing athletes and their families, familiarizing them with the horses (and the goats) and setting a practice schedule: twice a week until the nationwide competition in the fall.

A group of about a dozen people joined the farm tour, made up of parents and Special Olympics athletes who are interested in riding the horses or helping out with the team. The program is being hosted and organized by Stablework, a non-profit vocational farm in Newfield that is already a host site for workers from Challenge Workforce Solutions, which provides work training for people with disabilities and helps them obtain jobs. 

Stablework officials were approached by the Special Olympics of New York about creating an equestrian team to compete at the championships, and considering their experience in the field already, an agreement was reached. There are other teams participating from New York City, Saratoga Springs and Long Island.

“When I heard there’s not an upstate local team, I thought ‘Oh man, we’ve gotta do this,’” said Lisa Krizman, president, founder and director of Stablework. “We are such a horse area, and not just horse people, but you’ve got Cornell, you’ve got all these experts here, and we’re not represented and that bothered me. That was part of the inspiration, we really wanted to do it. And to beat the pants off New York City. That’s what’s driving me.” 

“She’s serious, too,” added her husband, Bob.

Stablework and Ithaca Equestrian Center staff with the Special Olympics participants. Credit: Karli Buday

Lisa Krizman runs the farm, along with Bob and Ruth Starer, Susan Schwartz and Michelle Decker, who staff the farm and serve as its Board of Directors. Now that the Special Olympics team has a home, it can start to prepare its four athletes: Emma, Kinsey, Jess and Andrew. All are riding during practices, but only Emma and Kinsey will be participating in the Fall Games on the equestrian team, while the other two will compete in golf. 

The competition is scheduled for Oct. 20 and 21 in Saratoga Springs, NY. The team is being led by Paula Wedemyer and Hannah Roman, both from the Ithaca Equestrian Center. 

Andrew Hay, one of the Special Olympics athletes in attendance on Saturday, said he hasn’t ridden a horse in quite a while but that he had grown up around them at his parents’ house and was excited to work around them. His father, George, said Andrew works at Stablework regularly through Challenge, adding to his familiarity with the animals. 

“It’s fantastic, the people are just really wonderful,” George Hay said of Stablework’s staff. “There are equestrian operations around here, in Newfield, but not for Special Olympics. This is [Stablework’s] thing, they’ve been doing it for a long time.” 

Other athletes interested will have similar experiences as Andrew. Challenge workers, such as himself, helped build the dressage course and the goat house at the farm; the dressage course was specially constructed once the Special Olympics team was created. That’s part of the larger purpose—using horseback riding as a way to communicate and teach job skills, like leadership and independence that might be more difficult for them to learn elsewhere.

“Our part in this is not only as the facility, but giving them advanced vocational skills,” Krizman said. “That’s tacking the horse, grooming them for show, cleaning the hooves, cleaning the stable. We want them to get jobs, we’re not here for therapy, we’re here for jobs.”

There will be open practice dates for the public to attend and watch the athletes as they train in the comings months, Krizman said, which will be announced soon.

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Editor in Chief at The Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.org.