Two student riders are being singled out by Banbury Cross Therapeutic Equestrian Center in Metamora Township for special recognition at its 28th Annual Derby Day Celebration on Saturday, May 5.
This year, the adult honoree is Debora Solomon, a former Oxford resident who now lives in Lapeer, and the youth honoree is Gabe Vandelinder, of Sterling Heights.
“Every year, as we’re preparing for our Derby Day (Celebration), I always sit down with the staff and we try to look back and see which riders best reflect what our mission is – what we do and why we do it,” explained Banbury Cross Executive Director Jessica Moore. “Both Debbie and Gabe, they just stick out.
Founded in 1991 and located at 1223 Brauer Rd., Banbury Cross is well-known and respected for using therapeutic horseback riding to help students with special needs and challenges grow physically, cognitively, emotionally, spiritually, educationally and socially.
The organization works with special education programs and students from both the Oxford and Lapeer school districts.
Banbury Cross is fully-accredited by the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH) International, a nonprofit organization that promotes equine-assisted activities and therapies for children and adults, including veterans, with special needs.
Adult Star Student Rider: Debora Solomon
“I was so surprised when told I was going to be (the) Star Rider – and happy,” said the 61-year-old. “Banbury is like my second home. The people and horses are so important to me and (make up) my barn family. I am thankful to be a part of such a wonderful place.”
“She’s the epitome of what we do,” Moore said. “We’re always preaching how we like to foster independence . . . and encourage our riders to do the most that they can do to the best of their abilities.”
According to Moore, in addition to being a skillful rider, Solomon is a dedicated volunteer.
“Volunteerism is such a large part of our daily operations,” Moore said. “She’s happy to participate on both ends.”
“She’s the first to take new riders under her wing,” Moore continued. “Whenever we have a new rider come in, or even a new volunteer, she’s always the first to welcome them (and) ask if they need help with anything or if they have questions.”
Moore noted on the days that Solomon rides, “she comes in two hours early” to perform data entry, help sort mailings and do “whatever else needs to be done in the office.”
“She’s happy to give back to the program that she gets so much from,” Moore said.
Solomon’s lessons at Banbury Cross began as a 2014 Christmas gift from her sister Sandy Ball. The following year, she took advantage of it.
“I’ve always loved horses and wanted to ride,” she said.
She now rides there weekly and considers it to be the “highlight” of her week.
In addition to increasing her strength and enhancing her balance, riding there has enabled Solomon to “make many friends and connections.”
She loves the fact that Banbury offers her a place where she’s able to communicate with people. That’s not always the case at other places because Solomon is “completely deaf” and “can only feel vibrations.”
“I was born (with) hearing, but lost it (as) a little girl due to measles and a high fever,” she explained. “I learned to read lips and I also speak American Sign Language.”
“Some people (at Banbury) have learned sign (language) and everyone tries hard to include me and do their best to communicate with me,” Solomon noted.
Her favorite horse to ride is Kally.
“I love her so much,” Solomon said. “She knows my voice and listens (to the way) I communicate. She knows me and let’s me give her hugs.”
Solomon believes the folks who work and volunteer at Banbury Cross are what give the place “such a big heart.”
“They are so special for helping people like me and all the other riders,” she said.
She refers to Banbury as her “happy place” because it’s given her “confidence and wonderful friends.”
“I want to keep going to Banbury forever,” Solomon said.
Youth Star Student Rider: Gabe Vandelinder
Prior to starting lessons at Banbury Cross in 2012, Gabe had zero experience with horses.
He had never ridden one. He had never been around them.
Now, it’s difficult to get him off a horse.
“He just fell in love with it,” said Greg Vandelinder, Gabe’s father. “He’s very comfortable around horses now.”
To Greg, “it’s a great honor” to have his son named the youth Star Rider for 2018.
“I think he’s a great choice just because he really (represents) what (Banbury’s) all about,” he said.
“If you think about therapeutic riding, Gabe is the picture of what we all hope to (achieve),” Moore said. “I’ve never seen Gabe without a smile on his face. From the second he walks in the door and he knows it’s time to ride, he’s smiling, he’s jumping up and down. He gets so much enjoyment out of the horses and riding in his classes.”
“Gabe’s somewhat limited in the outside, extracurricular activities that he can participate in, so horseback riding has really become his niche,” Moore noted. “
It was Gabe’s special needs that brought him to Banbury Cross. “He’s dealing with a host of different things,” Greg said.
Gabe, who will turn 13 in June, is non-verbal due to Childhood Apraxia of Speech, a neurological speech sound disorder that affects the brain pathways involved in planning the movements that produce speech.
The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communications Disorders describes it this way – “The brain knows what it wants to say, but cannot properly plan and sequence the required speech sound movements.”
“He can verbalize sounds. He just can’t speak like you and I,” Greg explained.
Gabe suffers from cognitive delay and attends special education classes at Carleton Middle School in Sterling Heights. “He doesn’t learn as quickly as others,” Greg said.
He also has issues with balance and sensory processing.
Given all this, Greg, and his wife Karen, were constantly seeking activities that would both help their son and hold his interest.
“He can’t speak, so he can’t tell us if he’s even interested,” Greg said. “We kind of just have to try things.”
Fortunately, they struck gold when they found Banbury.
In addition to being a great source of joy in Gabe’s life, riding horses has been “a tremendous help” in that it’s bolstered his confidence, enhanced his social skills and greatly improved his balance.
“He’s come a long way,” Greg said. “A lot of times he rides no-handed. He’s not supposed to, but he does.”
While at Banbury Cross, Gabe participates in a variety of educational activities, such as solving puzzles, that reinforce the lessons he learns in school.
“The difference is he’s doing them while balancing on the back of a horse,” Greg said. “It’s taking him out of his comfort zone. They try to challenge the riders.”
Gabe rides every week.
“Sometimes, he’ll ride two sessions in a row,” Greg said. “We’re there pretty religiously on Saturdays.”
Greg is typically there helping his son.
About four years ago, he underwent the necessary training to become a sidewalker, which is a volunteer who assists the rider during the lesson and helps with mounting and dismounting. “I’m there to ensure that he’s safe,” Greg said.
Overall, Greg couldn’t say enough good things about the leadership and volunteers at Banbury Cross. “It’s just a special place,” he said. “I really mean that.”
The May 5 Derby Day Celebration is an upscale fund-raising event for Banbury Cross.
It annually draws between 200 and 300 stylishly-dressed ladies and dapperly-attired gentlemen who come to watch the Kentucky Derby on a big screen and donate generously to the equestrian center.
This year’s event will include live and silent auctions, a plant sale, a raffle, chances to wager on the Kentucky Derby, cocktails and dinner.
Ticket prices for the Derby Day Celebration start at $125 each. Fund-raising is critical to Banbury Cross because it costs more than $30,000 annually to care for its 13 horses.
For more information, call (248) 628-7433 or visit www.banburycrosstec.org.