Unified Sports with the Four Legged Kind

Horses help win the minds, hearts, gold, silver and bronze medals with Special Olympics Illinois Athletes

Did you know that with all of the sports that Special Olympics Illinois (SOILL) offers, most are played entirely with other SOILL athletes? However, there is one that is played Unified with another kind of athlete….a horse.

Along with being competitive, humans can be compassionate, calm, athletic, understanding, comforting, friendly and therapeutic to each other. A horse can have the same effect on humans as well.

There is a therapeutic equine facility in Lemont, Illinois working with Special Olympics Illinois athletes and horses preparing them for competition, while helping to build the self-assurance of these riders. As Executive Director and Head Coach, Marlene Karman of Holistic Riding Equestrian Therapy (HRET) states, “The sense of pride, along with enhanced self-confidence and self-esteem derived from our participants knowing that their horses need them for care and exercise, is unlike anything I have ever experienced in any other industry. The bonding among riders, volunteers and horses is the heart of our HRET family.”

As you would imagine, for a facility like this to be extra special, you need exceptional characters as the basis for what you do. While there are many at HRET, one specifically comes to mind, Officer Baldy. No, he was not the local patrolman, but a founding HRET horse that provided so many people with the opportunity to learn how to ride.

Baldy was the original horse at HRET. He joined the ponies, Tony and Tina in 2015, when the Chicago Police Department Mounted Patrol retired him after he worked his final assignment – patrolling the Chicago Blackhawks Stanley Cup celebration.

Baldy was proudly named in honor of Chicago Police Officer Patrolman Leonard F. Baldy, who became the first “Flying Officer”providing Chicagoans with live traffic reports from a helicopter throughout the 1950’s. Baldy’s training and experience made him the ideal therapy horse with his calm, patient demeanor and large fluid movements. He was never fazed by any loud sounds, however this gentle giant, being a true city boy, was not a fan of pigs or cows! Many of HRET’s riders had their first ride on him where they felt comfortable and safe. Many of those riders were Special Olympics Illinois athletes, who rode Baldy in many events, including HRET’s first competition at the 2017 Fall Games at the Braveheart Therapeutic Riding Center in Poplar Grove, IL, near Rockford.

Karman recalls the courage that their first team had when overcoming the jitters at the ’17 games. “It is an amazing accomplishment for first-time athletes to overcome competition nerves in addition to the pressure of riding in a new facility filled with an audience and still perform at gold and silver medal standards. I am so proud of our entire team and their families!”

While many coaches, family members and HRET volunteers had a lot to do with calming the nerves of their athletes, there was one competitor and teammate whose training and spirit helped prepare them all for this.  It was Baldy, who helped bring home eight gold medals that weekend.


HRET’s home is  at Kopping Farms, a 150-year-old historic landmark and working farm that is located next to the Palos Forest Preserve in Lemont, Illinois.

The HRET team is passionately committed to empowering the  lives of individuals with varied physical, emotional, cognitive and social abilities through the spirit of the horse. 

HRET offers a variety of skill appropriate classes meeting the needs of preschoolers on our ponies to independent riders on our program safe horses.

Classes are taught by Professional Association for Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH) Intl. Certified Therapeutic Riding Instructors.

DON’T MISS – 3rd annual Country Western Casino fundraiser, September 19th, 2020 launching HRET’s Capital Campaign for the construction of a new ADA compliant temperature controlled year-round arena/barn in 2021.

Please visit their website at www.holisticridingtherapy.org to enjoy the testimonials and support their endeavor.