BURT – For 20 years, Equi*Star Therapeutic Riding Center has been improving the lives of children and adults with a wide range of special needs.

Riders, their families and supporters find this milestone worth celebrating, and the nonprofit organization will hold a special 20th anniversary open house for the public from noon to 5 p.m. next Sunday at its ranch at 2199 Fuller Road.

The Burt family of Wilson, which includes 20-year-old Christian, who is autistic, has long been acquainted with the importance of Equi*Star.

“Equi*Star is wonderful,” said Christian’s mother, Kathy. “It has given Christian social skills, and it’s given him socialization. He’s made friends because it’s noncompetitive. He’s really come out of his shell more, and he’s talking to people. He’ll stay up all night now reading books about horses. He has a real knack with them, and they come to him easily.

“Before, Christian wouldn’t come out of the house – he’s terrified to be outside, and he’s afraid of bees, but he hates to miss Equi*Star,” Burt said of her son’s regular Monday evening riding appointments.

Miriam Smith started the organization 20 years ago. She was a stay-at-home mother who went back to school after her children had grown. She was studying human services at Niagara County Community College when she saw a television show about therapeutic horseback riding in California and knew that was exactly what she wanted to do.

Having acquired her first horse at age 28, Smith already had equestrian experience when she went to Lothlorien Therapeutic Riding Center in East Aurora, which is still the only other similar operation in Western New York. There she learned how to start one in Niagara County.

Smith joined the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association to learn the regulations that would guide her new business. She founded Equi*Star in 1994, set up a board of directors and rented space around the county before settling into the current site 16 years ago.

“Miriam gives so much and should be commended for all she does,” said Burt. “Christian has even been selected for the Special Olympics twice and has won three gold medals because of Equi*Star. This has all been made possible for Christian because of Equi*Star.”

While Equi*Star helps children and adults with a wide range of disabilities, Smith said the majority of its riders these days are around 4 years old and are autistic.

“They are diagnosing (disorders) at an earlier age, so they are riding at an earlier age,” said Smith, who added that riders have to be at least 3½ years old.

Smith said she and her staff have found that learning to ride and care for the horses has helped their clients in a variety of ways.

“Those with autism, in particular, can be withdrawn and very much in their own world,” she said. “They usually don’t reach out at all. But the motion and the warmth of these horses and ponies – they’re such kind, gentle animals – brings the riders out of their shells. They start interacting more with their side-walkers and making eye contact. They start trying to communicate. They just love the horses and horseback riding.”

And the lessons don’t end there, Smith said.

“Every game we play has a purpose, although the riders just think they’re having fun,” she explained. “But they are either increasing their physical abilities or cognitive abilities. They are learning life skills. They are learning how to wait their turn, be polite, follow directions, be gentle and show empathy. And we’re working on speech, letters, numbers, colors and shapes. The horse is a good learning tool.”

Equi*Star now has eight horses, one mule and six ponies – four of which are Personal Ponies. The Personal Ponies organization gives U.K. Shetland ponies for free to children with disabilities. This breed is particularly effective because of its affectionate demeanor and short and stocky size, Smith said.

While Equi*Star plans to continue to use the ponies in its lessons, the group also has already placed one pony in the past several months at the home of one of its longtime riders – Christian Burt.

Equi*Star uses the ponies to teach its clients not only how to ride obstacle trails, but also, Smith said, things like, “How to care for the ponies, how to brush them and just become friends with them.”

Starting two decades ago with one horse and four riders, Equi*Star now includes two barns, an indoor arena and a house for stable manager John Taylor and his family on 36 acres.

“We’re so busy now that we’ve reached a point when it would be difficult to grow any further,” Smith said. “Everything we do is for the disabled population. We have daytime classes, evening classes and Saturday classes. We are only closed on Sundays. We also have groups who come for the work experience, learning how to be caregivers for the horses and do things like sweep the aisles and change water buckets.”

“We also still have a limited number of day camps, where riders come out and take care of a horse for an entire day, which is different than their riding experience,” she said. “They learn how to feed and clean and tack them up, and we have people come in, like our veterinarian and blacksmith, and show them what they do. These are very popular programs.”

Participants are asked to make “a very reasonable contribution” to participate in the Equi*Star programs, Smith said.

“But it only covers about one-fourth of our budget,” Smith explained. “And if they can’t afford it, they can apply for scholarship assistance. But we have more and more applying for scholarships.”

Equi*Star holds a handful of fundraisers throughout the year and applies for grants, but “there are so many nonprofits out there looking for grant money that it’s tough to get,” Smith said.

“The Western New York area is very giving – that’s proven by the fact that we’re still here after 20 years,” Smith said. “We’re here because of the generosity of the people of Western New York – not the big corporations, but the moms and pops – everyone gives just a little.

“We didn’t have any money when we started, and we still don’t,” she said with a chuckle.

People come from as far as Batavia and Buffalo and its suburbs for Equi*Star’s services, as it is the only one of its kind in Niagara County.

At next Sunday’s open house, special guest Matt Cox from Miracle Mountain Ranch in Spring Creek, Pa., will deliver a “Message on the Mount” astride his long-horned steer, Bosco.

Miracle Mountain is a nonprofit, nondenominational organization that operates a Western-themed retreat center. It’s one of the largest Christian summer camp horse programs in the country. Cox also will offer riding lessons for individuals who have access to a horse Saturday.

In addition, Leah Hunt, a local trick rider, will give demonstrations on her horse, Silver, and Equi*Star riders will showcase some of the special demonstrations they have been working on just for this occasion.

Demonstrations with ponies from the nonprofit group Personal Ponies and interaction with the ponies also are planned. “Mountain Man” Jerry Pechuman will share mountain lore, while barbecue and snacks will be available throughout the day.

“This open house is a big event for us,” she said. “We’re really pleased to have the people from Miracle Mountain Ranch coming here. They’re pretty impressive, and they include horsemanship and the Gospel, and they have a way of putting it all together. We’re honored they’ll come up and help us out.”

The event is free, but donations are welcome and a basket auction is planned.

To learn more about Equi*Star, call 778-8249 or visit: