HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) - Raina Wissing found her love for horses later in life - at the age of 54, to be exact. She and her husband fell so in love with the animal they made big plans to share their passion.
"We bought this land about three years ago with the hopes of doing a horse farm," Wissing said. "We thought, gee, there are no other equestrian programs in Horry County for Special Olympics Equestrian. Wouldn't it be really neat and cool to have one here?"
So, Wissing met with the Special Olympics of South Carolina and started this program on her land two years ago. Each session is eight weeks long.
"We have six athletes, three of which ride independently and three which are just finishing up the horse master program," Wissing said. "And that's a ground program where they get to know the horse, safety, anatomy, grooming, leading and tacking. And they get judged at each of the three levels."
After an athlete graduates the horse master program, it's time to saddle up and ride. While it may be a bit daunting at first, the athletes settle in and take the reins.
"When she first started she was a nervous wreck and she was really tense," said Karen Kitrilakis, the mother of an athlete. "Now you can see the transformation."
Kitrilakis' daughter Danielle has been with the program from the beginning.
"I think you need to have nerves of steel, you need to turn your head, and you need to trust in your coach like I trust coach Raina," Kitrilakis said.
While Danielle has gained the trust of her horse, she continues to learn lessons that will go far beyond the obstacles in the pen.
"It's great, it's really great," Kitrilakis said. "You want your kid to be independent. You want them to be responsible."
One thing is for certain though: this is not a therapy program.
"What we wanted to do was challenge the athlete and to say, 'Okay, I know you can do it,'" Wissing explained.
The challenge has not fallen solely on the riders. Wissing and her volunteer trainers have had to learn along the way as well.
"You have to reach the rider at their level," Wissing added. "I have a rider who doesn't know right from left, so that is a specific thing that I need to be aware of."
As the fall session comes to a close, Raina said the athletes are poised to take another step forward in their training.
"We're hoping next year when we all come back some of them will be trotting and then we'll see what happens," Wissing said, adding that the goal is to have some of her athletes competing in the 2018 South Carolina Special Olympics Spring Games in June.