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Equine therapy nonprofit aims to deliver smiles

Nick Coyne didn’t grow up with a dream of running a therapeutic riding center.

Instead, he was a construction electrician. A pin for the International Brotherhood of Electrician Workers union sits proudly on the side of his faded green baseball cap. He takes off the baseball cap and proudly points to the pin, rubbing a thumb across it to clear away any dust.

“I was with Local 134 for 19 years and I never thought I’d do anything except digging and climbing and all that,” he said. “To tell you the truth, though, this gang’s taught me much more than I ever taught them.”

Watching Coyne mosey up and down the aisles of the barn at Horsefeathers Therapeutic Riding center in Lake Forest, it’s hard to imagine him in any other setting.

The first thing he does is introduce the horses, giving a brief rundown of their careers.

Many are retired Chicago police horses donated by the department.

In total, Coyne, the center’s executive director, has 15 horses used solely in his therapeutic riding programs. All of the horses have been donated by police departments or Coyne’s friends in the horse world.

Once a new horse is welcomed into the Horsefeather family, it is acclimated to its new surroundings and taught the basic commands its new riders will be using during lessons, Coyne said.

“The horses, I think they really enjoy this clientele, I really do,” he said. “I mean, the love the gang shows them. And people say, you know, you might call [horses] dumb because they can’t talk, but I swear to gosh, they can read the minds or at least the frequency of these kids. I can’t praise them enough.”

He pauses in front of two stalls without their occupants. He points to one.

“This is Rover; Rover’s out working, he is,” Coyne said before pointing at the neighboring stall. “And that’s Ernie. ... Ernie’s another pony. Ponies are wonderful because we got all different sizes, kids and all. Now finding a docile pony, that’s an act of the almighty, it is. Holy moly. Ponies can be ponies, they can – and kind of rascally. And I’m very fortunate to have the ones I do.”

Coyne founded Horsefeathers as a nonprofit in 2000 when its former owners shut it down. Since then, he has built a network of therapists and volunteers, all of whom share his love of horses and a passion for the children who ride them.

Coyne welcomes riders of any age, riding experience and capability at Horsefeathers, and he works closely with the parents and the on-site speech and occupational therapists to map out individualized riding lessons to meet each rider’s needs.

Coyne also works very hard to make sure fun is a primary component of each lesson.

“Nobody comes here for therapy. It’s all their horse lesson,” he said. “They’re all riders.”

Bilingual speech pathologist Paula Acuna is one of the therapists who works part time at Horsefeathers. When she first came to the riding center, she began as a volunteer to familiarize herself with the organization and the horses. Almost three years later, “this setting is so unique [in that] it gives [the kids] a chance to generalize the skills that they’re working on,” she said. “And it’s really motivating for the students just to have that power and control to tell us when they want to go and where they want go.”

Acuna balances her work at Horsefeathers with a full-time job at the Green Bay Early Childhood Center in Highland Park.

While both jobs are rewarding in their own ways, “It’s rewarding to see the kids enjoy it so much,” she said of Horsefeathers. “In other settings, they might be reluctant to come into therapy and not want to be there. Just the fact that they get to ride a horse makes it pretty unique to them.”

Sherrilyn Drew has been bringing her 12-year-old granddaughter to Horsefeathers twice a week from her Des Plaines home for the past “six or seven years” for speech and physical therapy sessions. Drew said her granddaughter’s condition is undiagnosed, although she said it shares many characteristics to cerebral palsy. Drew said the results of the therapy sessions at Horsefeathers have been wonderful.

“It’s probably been the best physical type of therapy that she’s had,” she said. “Now as she’s getting older, she’s having problems with walking, but her balance and everything has improved immensely.”

Drew said her family has been “very happy” with Horsefeathers. While initially researching horse therapy centers, she had found one closer to Des Plaines. That center, while an easier commute for the family, had a waiting list for new riders. They continued searching and found Coyne.

“[Horsefeathers is] very, very accommodating; people who really help you out,” she said. “I’m glad we didn’t get into the one [near us] because this has been a wonderful place to come to.”

Horsefeathers’ website states it accepts volunteers ages 13 and older to “participate in all facets of [its] program and enjoy seeing our riders progress week to week.” As a result, Coyne said, he has seen people from all walks of life pass through his barn during the past 17 years, from veterans to retirees to people who are simply “between things in life.”

“Sometimes people think life’s overwhelming them,” he said. “And you come over here and you can see how things can really get overwhelming. You kind of taste everything a little bit better here; everything means a little bit more after a day here. It does that to you.”

Coyne harbors a deep respect for anyone who donates their time to his horses and riders, but his smile lights up when he talks about the military veterans who come through his barn.

“The vets, they just have a blast. They just love laughing and joking with the kids,” he said. “A number of them grew up with horses and you know the smell of horses, when we get in old cavalry men, they’d just cry. When the smell would hit them, it’d bring it all back for them.”

Running a nonprofit may not have been what Coyne had expected for his life – and there are times it can get overwhelming even for him – but Coyne said he loves every minute of it.

“You get frustrated sometimes. You’re broke and fixing things, and you always feel the pressure,” he said. “And then the kids come and then it’s like, ‘OK, this is what it’s all about.’ It keeps you right.”