New lift gives STARS riders a leg up in Brookings area

On Sept. 12, staff at the STARS program give a rider “a leg up,” with assistance from a mechanical lift, at the Circle H Riding Stable in Brookings. Brookings resident and volunteer Sue Sackmann paid for the lift. (John Kubal/Brookings Register)

BROOKINGS — Since its startup in 1994, when Larry Thomas led a group effort to put together a therapeutic and recreational horsemanship program for people with disabilities, the Special Training and Riding Skills program has continued to look for ways to make things better for its riders, who range in age from 6 years old to their 70s. One frequent challenge was getting the riders on and off the horses.

Now that challenge is being met with a mechanical lift.

“Before we had the lift, we had to take people out of a wheelchair, lift them up and then over across on to the horse,” explained Kristine “Kris” Skorseth, STARS program director. “It was hard to get them square and such; so we built up the ramp so we didn’t have to lift up so high.

“Now we have the lift so they sit and it just takes them up, we slide them over and set them right down on top of the horse. It’s a lot easier on our volunteers and on the rider and on the horse. The lift can also be used to take a rider off a horse.

“We even have some people who aren’t necessarily in a wheelchair but they have a tough time getting their leg up and over (the horse). So we use the lift for them, too.”

‘Wonderful benefactor’

The mechanical lift was purchased via a donation by Sue Sackmann, a Brookings resident and now dedicated STARS volunteer. Barbie Chambers Wilson, STARS riding trainer, coach and wrangler, lauded Sackmann as a “wonderful, wonderful benefactor, who made a large donation for us to be able to afford the mechanical lift.”

“What is STARS?” had been the donor’s reaction when she first heard of the therapeutic riding program. “I grew up on a milk farm; we had milk cows and pigs, no horses. So I wasn’t really acquainted with horses. I wasn’t really comfortable around horses. But as I got to visiting with (Skorseth) more and more, I thought, ‘What is this program about?’”

She and her husband, Gary, had moved to Brookings from Wisconsin in 1992. Their first child, Tanya Rae, was born with special needs. She told Skorseth “my daughter would have loved to have done this, just had the opportunity.”

Sackmann asked the director if she could come out for a visit and see the STARS program in action. She came out for the final riding session in 2022 “and got to know some of the people.”

“And I thought, oh my goodness, the needs that were there,” she said. “And the need, basically, was a lift. And (Kris) was saying they were trying to raise money for a lift. I could just see the need for it.

“It was very difficult for some of these people to get on the horses and difficult to get off. It wasn’t really very safe for anybody — the volunteers and the riders. I just kind of surprised Kris. I said, ‘I’m going to give the money for the lift.’ She was very appreciative.

“I did it in honor of my husband (Gary), who passed away two years ago and for my daughter (Tanya Rae) who passed away at the age of 7.”

Sackmann called her generous offer “just a journey that I needed to follow. And that’s what I did. The need was there. … It’s a donation and it came from the heart.”

And then there’s another donation. While the riding arena area has some bleachers for both riders and spectators to use, Sackmann had noticed that some people who used wheelchairs and some who had other physical limitations could not use the bleachers: So she purchased some benches, again in honor of her husband and her daughter — and also for Rambo, the STARS horse “who changed my heart.”

Volunteers always needed

The STARS staff has just a handful of paid, seasonal employees: Skorseth, Wilson and about a half dozen interns from South Dakota State University. Add to them a group of dedicated volunteers who keep the program going from late May through mid-September.

Skorseth has served as program director for about the past three years. She had previously served as “a wrangler at a Girl Scout camp.” Since becoming director she has been instrumental in helping bring some improvements and upgrades to the program, including: raising the ramp more; procuring the lift; obtaining a therapeutic saddle; and using walkie-talkies for staff communication throughout the area as the rides were being conducted and in actions needed to be taken in the case of an emergency.

The director noted that this year’s riders ranged in age from 8 years to people in their 70s. Six years old is the minimum for getting into the program.

“It’s not just physical challenges,” Skorseth explained. “It’s emotional, mental, sight.

“We encourage them to pet the horses, talk to the horses, thank them. We have one in our petting area; a lot of our riders’ siblings like to go and connect with them.”

“We have all different levels of skills out here,” she added. “Some of the riders don’t want to participate in any of the games, which kind of helps their balance. They just want to ride and that’s fine. It’s still therapeutic for them.

“It’s such a valuable program. It’s been in existence for so many years. It’s just a treasure. … About 70 percent of our participants are in wheelchairs and have no core strength.”

The director noted that STARS is a non-profit organization. It receives funds from United Way, Women Without Limits, other donations and also does some of its own fundraisers. She also noted that STARS has “a heavy reliance on volunteers.”

Everybody rides

Wilson, a native South Dakotan from Clear Lake, is in her second year with STARS after moving back here from Connecticut. She had learned her horsemanship in South Dakota on family summer vacations with her grandfather.

“I was at a point in my life when I wanted to move back home,” she said. “Last year I just decided I wanted to come back home to South Dakota. I did that and it’s been absolutely the most wonderful experience being here.”

“I’ve been a therapeutic and a recreational riding instructor for many years,” Wilson explained. Hearing about STARS needing a trainer, she enquired about the job on a Friday and Skorseth hired her the next Monday.

“I got myself moved here in two weeks so I could teach the orientation,” Wilson said, laughing lightly. “It was wonderful. There are so many special participants, more so than the typical program.”

Wilson brings to her new job impressive credentials, including membership in: PATH International (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International); International Society for Equitation; and Ride Like a Viking.

“No rider should be left behind,” she said of her approach to STARS. “It was challenging some times last year to get these riders on a horse safely; but we did it. I’ve used the mechanical lift in the past. … We have been able to design a program with the use of the therapeutic saddle.

“That and also training the volunteers to be in what we call the PATH International standards, to be able to really be hands-on, eyes-on, hands-on, completely emotionally and intellectually there with the rider. Everybody is safe and everybody gets to ride.

“I’m just extremely proud of this and extremely proud that we have people like Sue Sackmann, who was generous enough to help make this possible. Kristine Skorseth has done a wonderful job fundraising; she raised enough money to purchase our own therapy saddle for this year.

“We had borrowed one from another program last year. Now we have our own and I’ve even heard rumors of perhaps being able … to purchase an additional therapy saddle; because we have a need for more than one. We have so many riders that are wheelchair-bound.”

STARS is, so-to-speak, home-based at Circle H Stables, 1510 28th Ave. W., Brookings, and owned by Dick Halstead. Both Skorseth and Wilson express their appreciation to him for all the support he has given STARS. has a wealth of information about the program.

Contact John Kubal at [email protected].