Decorah's Brian Schilling prepares to add equestrian events to his Special Olympics accomplishments, when he competes at Jester Park Stables, near Des Moines. (Decorah Newspapers photo by Lissa Blake)
Forty-year-old Brian Schilling of Decorah has many hobbies.
But none he enjoys quite as much as horseback riding.
This weekend, he will put his horsemanship skills to the test, as he competes in the Iowa Special Olympic equestrian events at Jester Park Stables, near Des Moines.
"He is competitive," said Michelle McLain-Kruse, who runs Thunder Rode Therapeutic Horseback Riding and Grooming, located north of Decorah.
Schilling, who has been attending lessons at Thunder Rode for the past eight years, is developmentally delayed in addition to having a seizure disorder.
A dishwasher at Winneshiek Medical Center, Schilling also enjoys NASCAR, bowling, walking and biking.
McLain-Kruse said when Schilling started her program, his mother, Sherry, had asked if Brian might be able to eventually participate in the equestrian component of the Special Olympics.
He has competed in a number other Special Olympics activities in California, New Mexico and Wisconsin, including cross country, swimming, golf, bowling, track and field, soccer and baseball.
During Schilling's time in the program, Thunder Rode has expanded its offerings, which currently include sports therapy, Iowa Thunder Youth Empowerment, Tri-State Thunder Vets, grooming class and day camp. (See thunderrode.org)
Schilling also participates in the Thunder Rode Drill Team, which performs at area events throughout the summer.
An opportunity arrives
With so much going on, McLain-Kruse said she never felt she had time to pursue Special Olympics competition until a new family started her program last year.
As luck would have it, Susan Hope of West Union started bringing her son, John Gerdemann, to Thunder Rode for classes.
Like Schilling, Gerdemann, a 16-year-old with special needs, also had been participating in Special Olympics for a number of years but had never entered the equestrian part of it.
McLain-Kruse was thrilled to learn that Hope was interested in helping her son get to the Olympics and even attended a clinic in order to become a Special Olympics equestrian coach.
"She also offered to coach Brian and helped bring in a horse clinician who ended up donating his proceeds from the whole day to fund the Special Olympics trip," said McLain-Kruse.
Schilling has been practicing hard to prepare for the two events he will be competing in at Jester Park.
He will participate in the timed barrel competition, where entrants have to negotiate a prescribed pattern of three barrels in a specific sequence. If the rider approaches any of the barrels from the wrong side, they are disqualified.
He also plans to compete in the keyhole race, a speed event where the ground is marked with flour or powdered chalk in the shape of a large keyhole. The rider enters the keyhole and turns either direction in a circle, without stepping on the chalk, and exits the keyhole.
McLain-Kruse will be Schilling's "volunteer," accompanying him during the events. She will not be allowed to tell him the pattern.
"His mom's goal for Brian is that he be able to trot his horse through these patterns. But our main goal is that he be able to do this to the best of his ability," said McLain-Kruse.
"He's been working hard," added Hope.
In an effort to prepare, Schilling has also dropped more than 30 pounds, to be in top shape for his competition.
"I've been eating a lot better and exercising," he said.
McLain-Kruse added, "Opportunity Homes has been great in helping him with all of that."
In preparing, Schilling is lucky to have an experienced four-legged partner, a 17-year-old Tennessee Walker named Brigadoon, an ex show horse owned by Hope.
"Brigadoon was reserve national trail horse in the North American Gaited Championships for two years in a row and has been shown in Minnesota, Colorado, Virginia, Texas and everywhere in between. And Brian gets along with Brigadoon pretty well," said Hope.
When asked if he likes being a cowboy, Schilling smirks.
"I'm not too sure about that ... I just ride."
A great opportunity
Sherry Schilling said she would like to thank Hope and McLain-Kruse for offering Brian the opportunity to participate in the Special Olympics.
"Because of the heat, some of his afternoon lessons have been cancelled, but Susan has invited us to her farm in West Union in the mornings, just to make sure he's comfortable with her horse," said Sherry.
"This is a great opportunity for Brian to continue his Special Olympics activities, which provide fun and enjoyment as well as a positive growth experience for him. It also gives him the chance to participate in some normal activities that other men his age would be participating in. I know he is looking forward to another opportunity and the chance to meet new friends," she said.
Schilling added the Special Olympics program is "fantastic" and would love to see more activities for adults offered in this area.
Brian is the son of Larry and Sherry Schilling and the brother of Dr. Kristy Schilling, all of Decorah.
For more information, visit thunderrode.org or soiowa.org/pages/EquestrianCompetition.aspx.