The bond between animals and humans is well documented, and Saturday morning at the Coliseum on the Missouri State Fairgrounds another chapter was added to the story as two very special groups came together in an event that benefited all those involved.
The American Horseman Challenge hosted a riding event for eight members of the Pettis County Special Olympics and one special guest of honor.
Dr. Jan Pol, host of Nat Geo Wild’s “The Incredible Dr. Pol” and the CW Network’s “Calling Dr. Pol,” was on hand to offer words of advice and encouragement to the Special Olympians.
“I am so pleased to be here and to see these special young people have the opportunity to bond with these animals,” Pol said after the event. “The bond between them is just incredible.
“It is a special kind of therapy,” Pol added. “To see the smiles on their faces is what it is about and everyone here deserves a medal for their effort.”
Pol watched as the eight athletes rode horses belonging to competitors in the American Horseman Challenge.
The group was in Sedalia as part of a four-day event on the Fairgrounds.
“We have been a supporter of the Special Olympics for a number of years now,” Rhonda Lebbin said. “We have been very blessed in our organization and we wanted to do something to give back to others.”
Lebbin, whose husband Jeff Lebbin and Bill Hull co-founded the organization, said there were several unique aspects about the event Saturday morning.
“We set up a special course for these kids but it is very similar to what the course is like for the actual competitors,” she said. “The Special Olympians ride the competitors’ horses; they are not therapeutic animals.
“You’ll see most of the competitors out here walking and leading their animals as the athletes ride them because they know their animals and they all want to help these kids,” she added.
Lebbin said the organization hosted a fundraiser at the event this weekend for the competitors and their families where they raised $2,500 for the Missouri Special Olympics.
“It is just so rewarding to see these individuals as they ride in the ring,” Lebbin said. “Everyone cheers them on and it is great for them and for us as well.”
One rider, not with the Pettis County Special Olympians, who holds a special place in Lebbin’s heart is Leslie Mohr.
Mohr, who suffered a traumatic head injury, travels to many of the American Horseman Challenge events because her parents compete in the challenges.
“I really like being on a horse,” Mohr said after riding Neeko, her father’s horse, in the event. “I can communicate with them in a different way than I can with my family and other people.”
Competitor Marcie Sandridge, of Sedalia, said she really enjoyed her opportunity to ride as well.
“It’s a lot of fun to get to do this,” Sandridge said. “I get to know the horses and had fun petting them.”
Sandridge said one of the best parts of the Special Olympics program was the many friends she was able to make and the opportunity to spend time with them.
“A lot of my friends couldn’t be here today,” she added. “But we all play basketball and are on the bowling team. I miss them today but I am really glad to be a part of this.”
Helping those with disabilities be a part of the competition is one of the primary goals of the Special Olympics program.
“All that these young men and women want to do is what others do,” said Linda Johnson, coordinator of the Pettis County Special Olympics organization. “To them, it truly doesn’t matter if they win or not.
“Sure, they know what winning is but for them it’s really about the sportsmanship and being together and encouraging each other,” she added. “One of the best parts of the program is watching how it can change the perspective of others.”
Johnson has a son who has participated in the Special Olympics for 24 years. She has been a coach with the program for 22 years and said now her grandchildren are helping with the program.
“My grandkids come out to help and watch their uncle Kevin compete,” Johnson said. “I really believe they and their friends have learned so much about sportsmanship from these kids and how to be accepting of others.
“Anyone who volunteers comes away with an appreciation of what they have,” Johnson added. “They also learn how truly caring, loving and accepting these athletes are.”
The Pettis County organization has 15 athletes who participate on a regular basis. The members have both a basketball and bowling team whose seasons run August through the end of March.
“We compete at the State Special Olympics, and we see each other in the off season too,” Johnson said. “We truly are a family-oriented organization and we have a lot of fun.”
Johnson said they are always looking for individuals to volunteer at events and to help transport the athletes to and from practices and events.
“We can always use help,” Johnson added. “Really the individual just needs to be willing to commit some time to help.
“I know that everyone is so busy. But the rewards you get from these individuals mean so much.”
Individuals wishing to learn more about the Pettis County Special Olympics, or who would like to volunteer should contact Johnson at 287-3351.
Hope Lecchi can be reached at 660-826-1000 ext. 1484