Our Story

Story by Stephanie Smolek

Horses are healthy healers for people of all ages because they can soothe a person’s mind while providing physical benefits. Horseback therapeutic riding programs, such as S.M.I.L.E. Inc., are recognizing the benefits horses can bring to people, and sometimes, miracles happen.

S.M.I.L.E. Inc. is a large program located between Battle Creek and Madison, Neb. It serves about 135 disabled students a week from May to September. It is operated by Patty Prauner and dozens of volunteers.

“S.M.I.L.E. is different from many other therapeutic riding programs because it gets the students involved in caring for the horses. S.M.I.L.E. lessons are $20 each, an extremely low cost. S.M.I.L.E. manages to care for the horses and continue operating through donations and volunteers,” Prauner said Feb. 28. “I don’t want anyone to miss out on an opportunity like this because they cannot afford it. These families have enough expenses as it is,” she said.

The program started in 1992 with one pony and one little girl. S.M.I.L.E. stands for “Stephanie’s Miracles in Loving Equine.” Stephanie Preusker of Battle Creek was struck with spinal meningitis when she was 13 months old. This caused a stroke that left her unable to walk or move easily. One day when Stephanie’s mother, Barb, stopped to visit Prauner, they put Stephanie on a pony named Ginger. Stephanie was 5 at the time and loved it.

“When Stephanie first came out to ride the pony, she was very stiff and rigid and couldn’t move her arms very well. But she reached out to touch the pony on the neck and was grabbing for the hair. Her mother was shocked because reaching out was something that Stephanie was not supposed to be able to do,” Prauner said.

Stephanie would always have her head down as well, but tying a toy telephone in a tree made her reach up to grab it and talk. “We did this for a year, and recognized all of Stephanie’s improvements of reaching out, gaining muscle tone, and most of all, just the love of riding, Preusker said.

When riders come to S.M.I.L.E., it is each rider’s job to brush, saddle and bridle the horse with help from volunteers. Getting the horse ready helps improve the riders’ hand-eye coordination and gives them a sense of responsibility and accomplishment. During this time, volunteers can also help those students who cannot walk on their own, by supporting their weight while the student goes through walking movements.

“Each rider is on the horse for 30 to 45 minutes. Some riders can ride on their own, doing trail courses, pleasure classes, barrel races or games. Other riders are kept on lead ropes; however, they still must steer the horse with their reins. Some riders have to be held on. As long as a student’s doctor approves of them riding, S.M.I.L.E. does not turn anyone away, no matter what kind of disabilities they have,” Prauner said.

Body movement while riding a horse is very similar to walking. Some students were unable to walk when they joined S.M.I.L.E. But after riding for a few years, they walked with help and eventually on their own. “Muscles in the arms get stretched and used through controlling the horse with the reins. Some children who come to S.M.I.L.E. have trouble talking, but these same children open up right away for a horse,” she said.

The S.M.I.L.E. students gain independence right away. By treating students like anyone else, success is more likely to happen, Prauner said. The students enjoy the challenges given to them, which no one had allowed them before. “This is the miracle of the program,” Prauner said. “God works through all of us, and every person is put on a path for a reason. I feel that it is easy to understand how this is God’s program. He is keeping it alive through the volunteers that come to S.M.I.L.E. to help others. For students at S.M.I.L.E., it is more than a pony ride; it is a ride with God,” Prauner said.

*Stephanie Smolek is from Battle Creek. Thank you Stephanie for writing this story.