Jena Guldner was the little girl who wanted a pony.
"As soon as I could talk, I liked horses," said the 31-year-old from Millstadt. "When I was little and we were driving down the road, I'd see horses and get so excited. Every Christmas, there was no pony under the tree."
Her parents told her she could have one as soon as she could pay for one.
"I started a dog-walking business when I was in fourth grade. I walked for six business people. I had keys to their houses. I wanted a horse for a long, long time.
"When I was 14, I joined 4-H."
And she got her horse.
"The summer after eighth grade, my friends would ride bikes. I would ride my horse. He was a 28-year-old gray horse. Most would call him a nag."
Jena called him "Gray."
"I thought he was the most beautiful horse on the planet. He tolerated me and taught me a lot of things."
Now, Jena does the teaching at Briarstone Riding Academy, her boarding and training business in rural Millstadt. Late on a Monday afternoon, she and her "barn girls" helped riders prepare for the Special Olympics Fall Games in Rockford Oct. 25-27.
"Monday night at Briarstone is totally dedicated to special kids riding," she said. "We're in the process of getting certified. We're taking probably 10 to 14 to Special Olympics."
They're already winners in her eyes.
"All of these kids are doing amazing," she said, standing in the middle of the barn. "None had any horseback riding experience when they started (a couple months ago). One-third are already independent."
Special needs riding lessons began because of Colleen Costello, 26, a rider for five or six years.
"She kind of started staying a little longer and a little longer," said Jena. "Her parents asked if we needed any help. Now, she helps two days a week. She stays all day, assisting the barn manager."
When chores are done, Colleen rides.
"We've taken her to regular horse shows," said Jena. "It was difficult for her to place. Her mom (Kathy) inquired about Special Olympics."
Jena tagged along when Colleen competed in the Special Olympics with folks from Godfrey's Beverly Farms, where people with developmental disabilities live.
Word got out among famllies who belong to PTOEC
(Parent Teacher Organization for Exceptional Children). Others wanted to join in as well.
"I watched their kids go into the ring," said Jena. "They were doing something far away from home with big animals and an audience."
She noted the delight in their faces.
"As soon as I got home from there, I thought, 'Let's do it.'"
Jena gathered volunteers to help.
"All knew Colleen," said Jena. "She's part of our barn family."
One of the riders is Danielle Herderhorst, 15, of Waterloo.
What does she get out of it?
"Smiles," said Danielle. "I was surprised at how inspired I would be. I came and watched a couple times. I was pretty amazed at what the kids do."
Lessons are half fun, half work toward Special Olympics.
"For balance, we lead them around and they stretch their arms out like an airplane and reach for the sky," said Jena. "When they are nervous and don't want to let go of the saddle, it helps them free up their hands. It takes their mind off of it. It's fun. It has to be something fun, too."
The biggest surprise?
"The amount of ability that so many of these riders have," said Jena.
Part of the routine that day was barn-style basketball, a simple riding skill. Riders caught spongy soccer balls, then tossed them into rubber buckets. Moms and dads stick around to clap, cheer and offer encouragement.
"Good job, Brianna," Katie Stein called out, as her 19-year-old stepdaughter made a basket.
"It's her favorite thing to do," said Katie, of O'Fallon. "We wait for every Monday to come. I have to tell her what time we are leaving. She says, 'How much longer? How much longer?'"
It's the same way with Wayne Chambers, 22, of Swansea.
"This is the best to him," said mom Danita. "This is what he looks forward to. He doesn't talk. He's autistic. This is great."
Jena knows to expect Wayne in all kinds of weather.
"Some nights when it's storming like crazy, everyone has canceled," she said. "Here's Wayne."
"If Christmas is on a Monday, she's going to have to let Wayne ride," said Danita. "This is his number one thing."
Riders learn to start and stop a horse, to guide their horse around cones set up in a pattern. The cone course will be part of the Special Olympics event.
"What happens at the green cone?" she called out.
"We are going to tell Kelly to whoa," said a rider.
Sisters Lauren and Courtney Hoernis ride every other week.
"I am a better rider," said Lauren, 20, a smiling blonde.
"Which one is more modest?" countered their mom, Elaine Hoernis.
"I am," Lauren said, laughing. "I am the good one."
Which one does Courtney like to ride?
"Lola," said Courtney, 26. "She's good to me."
"They love it," said Elaine. "and they aren't scared. It's a little bit scary to me, but they're not scared at all. They are very happy when it's their week to ride."
It's fun being with friends. It's a good challenge to learn to ride.
The sisters have an undiagnosed genetic disorder that causes mental and physical challenges.
"Years ago, we'd been to therapy in Missouri," said Elaine. "They told me that horseback riding is good for the handicapped. That riding exercises muscles like you were walking, the way you have to sit and grip the horse.
"My two, they have let them do the reins independently. I've seen a lot of growth. People who help here are so sweet to our kids."
"Remember how to hold the reins?" Jena asked Lauren. "Good job. We are gong to walk around here and then go outside, OK?"'
One of the younger riders is Nate Shaw, 13.
"Nate gets a lot out of it," said dad Scott Shaw, of O'Fallon. "When he goes to school, he will tell all his classmates about his riding."
Jena's husband, Drew, led Nate and his horse through exercises.
"Nate, are you sitting up tall, buddy? Pay attention to where you are going," said Drew as the horse approached a series of poles laying on the ground. "See those poles. That's where we are going. Watch those poles."
Just past the poles, it was time to make a basket.
"That's a long shot," said Drew as Nate tossed a squishy ball. "One more try. Nate, I am going to put you right on top of this basket."
Drew is a city boy turned country. He used to run a flooring business in St. Louis.
"My husband is great with special needs kids," said Jena. "He's like a big kid himself. Nate has on days and off days. The last time he walked with my husband, he bent down and kissed him on the head."
Drew and Jena met on a blind date seven years ago. He told her he had a horse. Turned out he did, a 2007 black Mustang with a rag top.
"He kept a little brush under the seat, so when people got out he could do the carpet," said Jena. "His life is not the same. One day, he came home with a big white truck."
They needed a pickup to pull a horse trailer. Drew and Jena celebrated their second anniversary Aug. 20.
They couldn't live any closer to their business. "Through that barn is our house," she said, pointing to a door beyond the horse stalls. "Everybody told me if you do it for a living you won't love it anymore, but I do."
So does Drew. "If you would have told me 10 years ago I would be living inside a barn, driving horse trailers and having pizza parties with kids who work here, I would have told you (that) you were crazy," said Drew.
"Like my mom says, there's never a dull moment."
Briarstone Riding Academy, in rural Millstadt, is a boarding/training facility witha lesson program and competitive show curriculum. It's located at 3924 Floraville Road. For information, call 719-9959 or firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information on Parent Teacher Organization for Exceptional Children, visit the group's web site, PTOEC.org. Its mission is to provide planned recreational activities, socialization opportunities and instructional opportunities for intellectually impaired individuals in the metro'east.
How you can help
Briarstone will take eight horses to Special Olympics' riding competition. Jena will trim horse manes and add tail extensions, paint their feet and put on their makeup (oil their faces to accentuate features). Riders will wear boots, matching helmets and show shirts. She estimates that the cost to get animals there and pay for stabling will be about $400 per kid. Donations are welcome. For information, call 719-9959 or visit email@example.com
"We are already dreaming up ideas of how to change the barn to suit our handicapped riders," said Jena. "We need a special needs bathroom. If any contractor wanted to donate time to build a bathroom, we'd love it."