MOULTRIE, Ga. — A quietly successful Colquitt County program for youngsters appears to be coming to an end after a 20-year run.
Karen Cole is stepping down from operating the Special Olympics equestrian program, which has helped numerous special needs children since it began in 1996.
And she has been unable to find anyone willing to keep it going.
“I hate it,” said Cole, who has led a group of volunteers in operating the program since 1997. “I just hate to let it go. But it’s time.”
The program, which is under the auspices of the Colquitt County School System’s Program for Exceptional Children and Special Olympics, is partially funded by the Magnolia Civitan Club and has enabled youngsters with mental and physical disabilities to bond with horses and compete in shows.
But finding someone to put in the time required to operate the program — which now has six riders — will be difficult, she says.
“I’d love for someone to take it over,” she said “It would be wonderful. But it’s time-consuming. You have to feed the horses, water the horses, keep up with vaccinations. You have to be trained.
“And it has to be someone who loves special needs kids.”
Geni Akridge started the program in 1996 and called it Magic Riding, after Jeff Whiddon’s Magic Plantation, where the children practiced.
A year later, Cole, who had never owned or ridden a horse, agreed to volunteer with the program. And when Akridge was forced to give it up, she was offered the opportunity to take it over.
Cole has been leading the program ever since.
She enlisted the Magnolia Civitan Club to purchase horses and provide for their care. The local Special Olympics program took care of entering the youngsters in competitions and provide training for the volunteers.
Not long after Cole took over the program, Alex and Sandy Hooks offered the use of one of their pastures and she and her volunteers began working with the children there.
The program has had as many as 15 middle school through high school aged children involved, although now there are just six.
The youngsters who have been involved have reaped the many rewards of bonding with their horses.
Cole says working with horses helps the children’s confidence, their motor skills, their balance and their memories as they practice and compete in showmanship, western horsemanship and trail riding events.
“They have to learn to stay on the horse,” she says. “They have a pattern they have to do and they have to remember it. They have to go left or right. They have to go to the mail box. We can’t instruct them.
“And we had a kid once who didn’t talk. But he became very verbal when he was riding a horse.”
The horses serve as service animals, she says, much as dogs can.
“The riders connect with the horse,” Cole says. “They ride the same…