Horses have a lot to offer their human caretakers, from health benefits to reduced stress to the development of greater self-confidence and empathy, say riding instructors across central Illinois.
There are few opportunities to get closer to nature than through horseback riding, said Jenna Walker, program director and instructor at Central Illinois Riding Therapy (CIRT).
“I will say just being around horses brings you a sense of serenity,” said Julie Catton, barn manager at Pringle Stables. “It’s just therapeutic.”
Meanwhile, horses can provide a confidence boost. After all, there’s no guarantee of success after climbing into the saddle. “Be brave enough to try something that might take you out of your comfort zone,” said Catton. “You never know what you’re going to learn about yourself from that.”
Indeed, “horses are sort of like a dog, but they’re bigger and they have more of a mind of their own,” said Walker. “You can’t just push them. You have to work together as a team with them.”
Then there’s the sense of escape and accomplishment that comes from engaging with an animal that weighs 1,200 pounds, said Walker. “The freedom is really it for me,” she said. “It’s a freeing experience to get on a horse … or become one with that horse.”
Here’s a look at three area horse-riding operations:
The Heart of Illinois Arena
The Heart of Illinois Arena has hosted crooning cowboy Roy Rogers, rock band Led Zeppelin, and even gangster Al Capone. Before Patricia and Ernest Frietsch took over in 1988, the arena served as a wartime airplane hangar and a dance barn, known as Baty’s Barn.
Today, it’s home to almost 200 horses, with 150 stalls under one roof, just north of Detweiller Park on the west side of Illinois Route 29. Over the Frietsches’ 30 years of ownership, the arena has hosted more than 1,000 shows.
“We put on horse shows and horse events by every horse breed in the state of Illinois,” said Patricia Frietch. “We are booked every weekend.
“The Heart of Illinois Arena is something we created. We like the people and we have friends all over the state. People come from all over.” In May, for example, the facility hosted visitors from Minnesota, Michigan, Indiana and Missouri.
A big part of the appeal for Patricia is that there is no age limit, with many of her riders in their late 60s. “I’m 78 years old and still riding, so I believe the people that are involved in it are younger in mind and heart,” she said.
This summer, the Heart of Illinois Arena has many events that will be open to the public. The Heart of Fun shows displaying the talents of young riders are scheduled for June 10-11 and June 24-25. The CIRT show is June 3, and the Illinois State Buckskin Association has a three-day event in early July, followed by a ranch horse clinic.
In August, notable horse trainer Carson James from Florida will host a three-day horsemanship and groundwork clinic. “This is brand new,” said Patricia. “The Midwest has never seen this before.”
Some shows are quite the spectacle. In April, the arena hosted a de-spooking clinic for horses with Bill Richey from the Mounted Police Training School. “It was just amazing … to watch these horses go through smoke bombs, sirens and fire,” said Patricia. “The whole arena was lit on fire.”
In addition to the horse shows, the arena hosts auctions, weddings and fundraisers, sporting events such as BMX bicycle racing, and even birthday parties.
Pringle Stables, located in Edwards, offers boarding, riding lessons, on-site training, camps and other events.
During a typical one-on-one lesson, the student will interact with a horse by grooming and putting on the saddle and bridle tack. For a first lesson, Catton will establish a baseline for the experienced in accordance with what the student’s goal is. The students work with Pringle’s five employees and 13 horses.
Pringle continually develops new ways to integrate horses into the lives of area residents. This summer, Pringle will host an eight-week summer class for beginner horsemanship students. Students will spend an hour a week interacting with a horse, learning how to approach the horse, and how to care for the horse. Additionally, students will learn how to ride and manage the animals.
“There’s a great energy around here,” Catton said.
Central Illinois Riding Therapy
CIRT is a nonprofit organization in East Peoria serving people with mental, physical, emotional and behavioral disabilities in a therapeutic riding program.
Walker said that CIRT works with about 100 students a year, from age 4 to 86. Two full-time and two part-time employees provide supervision for students as they ride CIRT’s 11 horses.
“When we’re in class, we’re working on hand-eye coordination and improving the time it takes to pick up an object or the time it takes to put the object down,” said Walker. “Some of it is completely confidence building, which is wonderful because when you’re riding a 1,000-pound animal, that’s a lot of confidence to steer and make them do certain tasks.”
Every year, the Frietches offer their Heart of Illinois Arena to CIRT for their annual horse show. This year, the show will be held on June 3. All proceeds from this event go toward funding for CIRT.
“The love of the horses is just something that money cannot buy,” said Patricia Frietch.
Heart of Illinois Arena Patricia and Ernest Frietsch
9201 N Galena Rd, Peoria, IL 61615