SARAH WELDAY is pictured at the University of Findlays Western Equestrian Farm. Prematurely born, Welday has overcome numerous health problems and is now a double major in western equestrian studies and equine business management. (Provided by the University of Findlay)

EDITOR’S NOTE: The University of Findlay this month is recognizing its students with disabilities.

By Joy Brown
University of Findlay

University of Findlay freshman Sarah Welday credits a central Ohio horse farm, particularly those who volunteer and participate in its therapeutic riding program, with inspiring and motivating her.

At age 15, Welday said she began learning and working at the horse farm, Dreams on Horseback, located in Blacklick. Since then, her affinity for all things equine has grown. She is now double majoring in western equestrian studies and equine business management at UF.

Her accomplishments have required a great effort.

Welday is a triplet. Born at 26 weeks, she weighed 1 pound, 7 ounces. She had a hole in her heart, required tube feeding, and underwent airway reconstruction surgery when she was 6 months old.

One of her brothers, Caleb, was born with cerebral palsy and other complications. An older brother was still a toddler when the triplets were born, making things exceptionally challenging for her parents.

Today, Welday’s primary physical challenges involve speech and vision. Her vocal chords are paralyzed. She can speak, but her voice is low and raspy. She has a narrowed airway. She also does not have binocular vision, which means she can only focus with one eye at a time.

“That is just the now. There were about 10,000 other things going on when I was born,” Welday said.

But working with horses and riders has helped her overcome her own fears and limitations, and focused her career and life objectives. She now knows her purpose is to help others, she said.

Welday, a Reynoldsburg native, began working at the Blacklick horse farm when her mother insisted she get a job. She was drawn to the animals while simultaneously being fearful of them, she said.

“It took me a while, because all I really could do was sweep the aisle and water. But after a while of being around them and building up my confidence, I got more comfortable with them, and I kind of worked my way up the ranks,” said Welday, who initially concentrated on building her physical stamina to keep up with the demands that working with horses require.

Her comfort, confidence and knowledge levels increased to the point where she eventually became one of the go-to volunteers whom others sought for advice. By the time she left for college, she was arriving early at the farm and leaving late most days of the week, to tend to the animals and “make everybody else’s lives easier,” she said.

In 2016, Welday was named the Region 4 volunteer of the year by the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship at its conference in Williamsburg, Virginia.

She also earned Dreams on Horseback’s Bill Lewis Memorial Award for being the organization’s 2016 Volunteer of the Year.

“Sarah threw herself into every role with energy and enthusiasm, and by the time she graduated high school, she was one of our most experienced volunteers who helped to coach newcomers,” said Veronica Lac, a trainer, coach and therapist at Dreams on Horseback.

“She was a favorite with instructors and students alike, and it was a joy to watch her develop over the years. Sarah was easy to coach and mentor, and has an affinity for those with special needs.”

Welday “asked a lot of questions” while volunteering, which signaled her intention to become fully immersed at the farm, said Marsha Krantz, a therapeutic riding, Special Olympics Equestrian Team, and vocational instructor.

Krantz was also impressed with Welday’s interest in learning to ride herself, which helped her to better understand the children she was assisting, and the horses.

“Sarah has a huge heart, and she’s very much a go-getter as well,” Krantz said. “She became so much more outgoing while she was here, which was neat to see. She’s just a very loving, kind and compassionate person, which is inspiring.”

“They accepted me there,” Welday said of the Dreams on Horseback organization. “I felt like I was home. I felt like I could be who I am there.”

The animals also played a large role in her advancement, both at the farm and outside of it.

“Horses bring a lot out of people confidence-wise. I saw that through my work, but I also saw it in me. I became a lot more confident than when I first started in about everything that I did,” she said.

Much of her more recent self-improvement, she said, stems from her work with those benefiting from therapeutic riding.

“There are a few of them whom I really connected with, and for some of them, I was there the day they first started riding,” she said. “I got to see them grow. So my thinking is, ‘Yeah, I have a lot of work to do myself, but I’m sure they have at least 10 times as many things they have to work through and that they have to overcome. And if they can do it, so can I.'”

Welday recalled one particular rider whom she convinced to ride in a saddle, instead of bareback, the former method being safer. Such teaching, she said, has been immensely rewarding.

“I’ve had a few of them (riders) tell me in a lesson, ‘No, I can’t do that.’ I would sit there and be like, ‘Don’t tell me no. I want to see you try first.’ So I’ve been able to help them overcome these things. And I always look at that and kind of use that as my motivator,” she explained.

Now, Welday can often be found working with Lazy, one of the Western Equestrian Farm’s horses. Petite but determined, she brushed off concerns from others, and enjoys cracking jokes to put everyone at ease and garner a few laughs.

“I was like, ‘Guys, it’s OK. I’m vertically challenged. It’s fine,” she said she told her classmates at the farm. “I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t really care about it. I’ve gotten almost sassy about it,” she admitted. “I’ll poke fun at myself. I make my friends laugh about it.”

One day, while sitting in bleachers to watch a riding demonstration, a classmate complained that her feet weren’t touching the ground. “And without skipping a beat, I turned around, looked at her, and was like, ‘That must suck,'” she said.

Welday isn’t sure which career she’ll pursue after graduation, but in the meantime intends to learn all she can at UF, and enjoy her time here.

“I’ve made so many friends up here, way more than I had when I was in high school. And I like it because I’m far from home, but not too far, about two hours away. So I have that feeling of independence,” she said.

Her two brothers are also close by, one attending Bowling Green State University and the other Ohio Northern University.

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