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Columnist
Horse therapy program grows into new facility
By Lee Litas | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 8/19/2008 12:09 AM

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Henry John Temple, the Viscount Palmerston once noted that, "There is nothing so good for the inside of a man as the outside of a horse." The oft-repeated maxim is sort of a rallying cry for Equestrian Connection NFP, an equine-assisted facility in Lake Forest for children and adults with special needs.

I first wrote about the EC three years ago when owners Diana Schnell and business partner Nick Coyne were providing services for more than 100 regular riders and various groups specifically focused on rehabilitation. Their program was helping individuals from Lake and Cook counties, Chicago proper and even out-of-state participants.

Now in their 26,000-square-foot facility situated on a 10-acre compound at the meeting point of four northern suburbs, including Mettawa, Lake Forest, Libertyville and Vernon Hills, the EC houses 20 horses, many of them rescues, and is able to accommodate more than 300 regular riders.

The brainchild of the new facility was Martin V. Domitrovich, a local businessman from Libertyville for whom the EC became his legacy. Though diagnosed with terminal pancreatic and liver cancer, Domitrovich beat all the odds by living a full eight years past his 6-month life expectancy.

"He traded his illness, his cancer, his pain into strength and courage, and even at his sickest he still referred to his cancer as a 'minor inconvenience' as compared to what some other people go through," said his widow, Karen "KD" Domitrovich.

The Domitrovich's believed in the healing powers of equine therapy so much they even enrolled their own granddaughter, Spencer Camile, into the program. Born six weeks premature, Camille was diagnosed with necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC), and spent the first five months of her life in intensive care. The illness left her unable to use her core muscles causing her to fall down much like a rag doll. Through therapy provided by the EC, she was able to build muscle tone and now at age 7 she is perfectly healthy and able to ride even without using her hands.

Equine-assisted therapy has been shown to be a significant factor in positively affecting adults and youth alike by addressing a wide range of issues from physical disabilities to behavioral concerns, including attention-deficit disorder, depression and anxiety.

The method has been compared to the challenges of an obstacle course, but with the added assistance of having a living, breathing, powerful being in the form of the horse itself.

"I believe the horses just know when a child or an adult with impairment is riding them. They are calm and are just caregivers in themselves," said KD, who today is carrying on Martin's legacy by continuing to give financially and of her time.

"I am going to stay involved. When I can see a child doing something normal, when I can give a parent a half-hour break, it gives me immeasurable joy to know that I am helping in some small way and I know that Martin would want me to do this," KD said.

At the EC, he was referred to as 'Mr. PMA', which stood for 'positive mental attitude.' "He was a great leader who pushed me to go beyond what I thought was possible. We owe it to him and his family to keep improving and making it better," said Diana Schnell.

The Equestrian Connection's third annual "Marty's Barn Party and Concert," featuring an Eagles cover band and headlining Livingston Taylor will take place Sept. 6. For information visit www.equestrianconnection.org.