SIT A SPELL. Volunteer Caitlin Suchodolski, Assistant Coach Melodi Poli and Joseph Poli take a load off.
RALEIGH -- Four Special Olympics competitors blazed a trail for Franklin County athletes.
For the past four years, Kimberly Dixon has been providing Within My Rein -- an equine assisted therapy program for those with special needs -- here in Franklin County.
Along with Natalie Poli, a Special Olympics volunteer, they decided to build a Special Olympics equestrian team to represent Franklin County. Dixon serves as the coach.
In September, the county sent its first team to compete in the Special Olympics of North Carolina Equestrian Tournament at the James B. Hunt Horse Complex at the NC State Fair Grounds.
"It was really a great experience for the athletes," said Special Olympics of Franklin County Coordinator Oliver Greene. "They got the chance to compete in something they've been doing for years.
"To be able to compete and to see their faces when they won or competed, and this being the first time we've done it, it was just a great feeling."
Dixon has been working with special needs children for nearly the past decade, using horses to teach kids the kinds of skills and discipline that's key in aiding them with their disabilities.
"The way I structure my therapy program is, especially with kids with autism and Down Syndrome, it focuses on impulse control, following directions, anger management and how to deal with frustration and building a bond with your horse.
"That's all real important with these kids because they do deal with such raw emotions, so we do a lot of practice and learning to control emotions, which helps to control the horses," she said.
"Horses, they feel everything, so when you're upset and get on horse, he knows you're upset," Dixon said.
"It's about being able to control their emotions and know what they're feeling and learn what they're feeling at the time."
That kind of control is exhibited through the disciplines that are tested at the equestrian event.
It features events, among other things, in dressage, eastern and western horse riding, showmanship, pole bending and barrel racing.
The four-person team for Franklin County included, Sarah Poli, Joseph Poli, Kai Pennix and Bryan Wheeler.
The team from Franklin County competed in western riding, working trails and showmanship.
Joseph Poli won a gold medal in Western Equitation. Wheeler earned a gold medal in Working Trails. And Pennix took home a silver medal in Working Trails.
Pennix also took home a 4th Place Ribbon in Western Equitation; Joseph Poli took home a 4th Place Ribbon in Western Trails; and Wheeler took home a bronze in Working Trails and a 5th Place Ribbon in Showmanship.
"... For him, to be able to show his talents, he just glowed," Shari Wheeler said of her son, Bryan. "He was in his element.
"He wants to keep doing it."
Wheeler said the benefits are much more than medals and ribbons for her son.
"Other than confidence, the whole program, the riding, it keeps him very calm and focused," she said. "That's hard for kids with autism ... but when he's with that horse, he's totally in that element.
"... Now, it's grown into his passion," she said. "He wants to be a horse trainer when he gets older."
Dixon said she would love to see the program expand and the county's Special Olympics team get filled to bursting.
"We would love for it to grow," she said. "I would love to be able to take more kids.
"It's such a good experience for them," she said. "... We would love to have more kids."
"... This is a great opportunity to provide something for the citizens of Franklin County that they may have never known was even available and now we're able to offer this, especially with the help of [Dixon's] Within My Rein, to help facilitate it. It's great.
"I'm thinking it will expand and we look to expand other opportunities, as well."
If interested in Special Olympics, contact the Parks and Recreation Department at (919) 496-6624.
To learn more about Within My Rein, visit Facebook and type "Within My Rein" in the search field.