Growing Together – Partner, Athlete Bond Over Horses

Editor’s Note: Kambr Kutkowski of Chicago is the winner in the 2014 Share Your Story contest. This is her story:

I recall having this feeling in my stomach, the feeling that you get when you’re at the top of a rollercoaster and it’s about to drop. I heard the voice of a woman coming out of the speaker behind me as I waited in the staging area at the 2014 Special Olympics Illinois Fall Games. I heard her, but I wasn’t really listening to my best ability because all I could focus on were the butterflies inside my tummy. In the midst of trying to calm myself down and listening to the woman, all I heard was “The winner is Shane Blake” and there it was – the rollercoaster dropped and the butterflies flew away.

Kambr Kutkowski and Shane Blake after he receive Illinois Outstanding Rider of the Year award
Kambr Kutkowski and Shane Blake after he receive Illinois Outstanding Rider of the Year award

We walked into the arena for Shane to accept the Illinois Outstanding Rider of the Year award. The award is given to the Special Olympics equestrian who exemplifies outstanding commitment to learning about and working with horses. Shane looked at me for approval as we stepped into the arena to accept his award. The wife of deceased George Moore brought out the plaque that’s in the shape of our home state Illinois. The plaque displays a paint horse, a quote that says “Illinois Outstanding Rider of the Year” and the name of that phenomenal rider – Shane Blake.

The expression on his face expressed all of the emotions swimming through my body. I was overwhelmed with joy at this point, because of the simple fact that all of the hard work Shane and I had done as a team was finally acknowledged. Not only was it acknowledged, but it was acknowledged at the state Special Olympics games. Out of the hundreds of people at the games, and the many nominated, Shane won the award.  This was Shane’s very first time competing in the equestrian Special Olympics, it was also the first time that students from Chicago Public Schools participated in the games. We made history!

School is unique place

My friendship with Shane started at a very unique place – the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences, our high school. It is the only farmland left in Chicago and it is the only ag school in the Midwest. I can recall walking to biology class freshman year and seeing Shane every day. He always looked like he wanted to say something to me, but he never did. So one day I spoke to him. I just said “hello,” he didn’t even reply verbally, he just waved. As the week went on, I continued to speak to him and by the end of the week he asked me what my name was, I said “My name is Kambr. What is your name?” He responded with a huge smile and said “I’m Shane Blake.”

2014FG-ME5374-1Our school has a program where students with special needs can learn to ride horses.  Shane was the first student to ride and he instantly connected with a horse named Diva. I got involved because I have a passion for horses and children with special needs. When I saw Shane on Diva I knew I had to become a part of that. I became Shane’s horse leader and Unified partner. We practiced very hard for the 2013 Fall Games, only to learn we had to participate in two other horse-related events prior to participating in Fall Games. We came to the conclusion that we had to find two events to participate in before October 2014.

After Shane and I had finished preparing for the 2013 games, I realized that I had made myself a new friend. I didn’t want to wait until fall of 2014 to work with Shane again, so I asked him to work with me in the schools barn on Saturdays and Sundays. In the barn there are a lot of chores, and each chore is unique.  Knowing that Shane has autism, I made it my goal to teach him each chore while working toward him being able to do some chores independently.

We started working in the barn together in the winter of 2013. Shane was pretty much my shadow. We worked as a team a lot, but there was a lot of work to do, so I wanted Shane to become more independent. I wanted him to be able to do chores on his own without my input, so I started by giving him three independent chores and two team work chores. His independent chores were to feed the chickens, give them water and to collect the hen’s eggs. Collecting the eggs is his favorite task. He goes to the chicken coop and uses his yellow basket to gather the eggs. After gathering the eggs, he walks back into the barn and goes to the sink to wash them. Before washing the eggs he transfers them into a green basket, as he does this, he counts how many eggs he collected. He puts the green basket full of eggs into a white bucket and fills it with warm water. Once the bucket is full, he turns the aerator on and sets a timer for 15 minutes.

ShaneAndKambr1His team work chores were things that we did together, like cleaning stalls and feeding the horses. One day over the summer, Shane and I were cleaning the dry lots, a shelter area with four different sections where our horses eat, sleep and create lots of manure for us to clean up.  As we cleaned, we talked about Christmas movies and all of a sudden we started singing “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.”  I sang one line and he replied with the other. It was a perfect moment. Even as the year went on and Shane was able to do more chores by himself, we continued to do our team work chores together because the friendship aspect was just as important for him. Before I knew it, Shane was doing more and more independent chores, but we always remembered to do our team work chores together because it gives us time to have those random singing moments.

Like a blooming bush of roses

I started to see more and more social changes in Shane. Through riding horses and working at the barn, Shane really blossomed. He has made new friends, became Buddy Director of our Best Buddies Chapter, shown a pig in the County Fair in Sandwich and learned a ton about animals. He was like a blooming bush of roses, every day he had a new branch growing.

ShaneBlakeRiding1To prepare for the 2014 Fall Games, we competed in two shows at the FFA Section 8 Fair hosted by CHSAS.  Shane rode a horse we have named Cricket. The two classes that he competed in were open walk/trot and western pleasure. Shane bonded with Cricket and won a blue ribbon. Shane then decided to ride Cricket to compete in Special Olympics.

We spent the entire summer and first two months of the school year practicing for the Games. Shane’s coach, Chloe Willetts, put all of her passion into prepping. We worked every day during my lunch period to practice. Chloe worked on making sure Shane knew his cues and the pattern. My job as Shane’s horse leader was to make sure Cricket stayed calm, cool and collected. We had the pattern set up in our pasture and I was very confident in Shane. Our last practice was on Thursday, October 23. Shane did amazing and I knew we would be prepared for the upcoming weekend.

We arrived at the Bergmann Center on Saturday, October 25. We walked into the barn and admired all of the horses we saw, but the horse we were most excited to see was Cricket, who had arrived at the Bergmann Center the night before. We walked to the last aisle of the barn and saw his horse Cricket, who Shane refers to as “Mr. Cleaners Pants.” I think that his imagination gets an “A plus” for coming up with that one!

2014FG-ME5381-1We tacked Cricket up in anticipation for the stock seat class, a class we were not able to spend as much time preparing for during the year. Despite this, I felt confident in Shane’s ability to complete the simpler pattern. We didn’t practice this pattern as much as we practiced the trail class pattern, but I was still pretty confident in Shane – especially after he received the “Illinois Outstanding Rider of the Year” award. When the time came, we waited in the arena for our turn. Suddenly I had that nervous feeling again. A woman opened the gate for us, Shane urged Cricket forward and we began the pattern. Shane and Cricket had to complete a serpentine pattern using two cones as markers, and stop at the third cone. Shane executed the first part of the pattern well, but as we approached the third cone, I realized that instead of asking Cricket to stop, he had asked him to keep going. In that moment, I knew we had made a mistake. The class finished and the judge called the winners. Shane got 4th place. I was not mad at Shane, I was just disappointed because I really wanted to see him win.  I took a deep breath and fixed my face because I didn’t want Shane to think I was angry with him. Besides, we had another class to compete in the next day and I knew Shane knews that trail pattern very well.

‘Don’t be a passenger’

On the day of the trail competition, we left the hotel and headed back to the Bergmann Center. I gave Shane a pep talk and told him to go out there and be the best rider that he could be. I found myself standing in front of the gate with those butterflies back again. Before we started the class, I told him to “smile and ride your horse. Don’t be a passenger, buddy.” Shane smiled and took a deep breath as the woman opened the gate and wished us luck.

We walked to an orange cone and stopped. Shane looked at the judge and waited for his confirmation to start the course. The judge nodded his head, Shane said “walk on Cricket” and we proceeded. We walked through a box, over three logs. Next, we turned a corner and walked over a bridge. Shane walked Cricket over two more logs and wove Cricket through three cones. The course ended with two barrels. Shane walked past the first barrel and stopped at the second one. He said “Whoa, Cricket” and pulled back on his reins. Then, he pulled back again and said “Back up, Cricket.” Cricket backed up perfectly and the class was over.

ShaneKambrHug1As the horse leader, I had to walk Cricket back to his stall and un-tack him.  I rushed Cricket to his destination and stripped off his tack. I remember the adrenalin rushing through my body as I took the saddle and the bridal off. When I was done, I rushed back to the arena to see what place Shane got in his class. I got there a few seconds too late – they had already announced the winners. I saw Shane standing behind two other athletes. I looked down into his right hand and saw a gold medal! I looked back up at his face and saw a smile worth a million dollars. We ran towards one another with open arms and gave each other the best hug either of us had ever received. When we let go, I felt tears forming in my eyes.

I held the tears in as Shane and I rushed to see his parents. As we entered the lobby, I saw Shane’s dad holding back tears as well. I looked ahead of me and saw Shane’s mother. I ran up the viewing stands and we looked at each other and I let out a deep breath and a giggle. I looked over at Shane and he was still smiling. At this point, I had shed some tears with a smile from ear to ear. I used my sleeve on my red shirt and wiped my tears away. As I took a deep breath, I thought about how much our friendship has grown. I realized that through Special Olympics I have gained a forever friend.

Through this expierence,  I have learned to combine my passion for horses and special needs children. The connection that I have made between the two is something that was indirectly given to me by Special Olympics.