By Laura Boynton
Jeff and Lorna Zaloudek’s 34-year-old son, Evan, has achieved multiple World Championships as a top EWD Independent all-around exhibitor. Evan has an encouraging attitude that shines as bright as his show ring smile as he has attended shows from the Dixie Nationals to the Quarter Horse Congress every year since 2011.
When he was just 16 months old, Evan’s parents knew something wasn’t quite right with their son. Evan was in an early childhood class, and a private speech therapist was hired to come to his home twice a week when Evan was just three years old. Evan’s family worked hard to get as much knowledge and insight from professionals in the mental, physical, behavioral, and occupational therapy programs offered in their hometown of Lake County, Illinois. Shortly after Evan turned four, he was diagnosed with a pervasive developmental disorder and was later labeled as Autistic. His disability also included a severe speech and communication disorder. At the age of 11, a seizure disorder was added to his diagnosis. Even though he was often frustrated, “Evan was a happy kid, unless he had to do something that he didn’t want to. He was a little handful growing up,” Lorna laughs.
Evan attended the John Powers Center for the Hearing Impaired when he was six years old, where he learned sign language, as did his parents and older brother, Derek. Evan didn’t talk until he was nine years old. “We understood his frustration and knew he had every right to feel anger from not being able to explain himself and put his feelings into words. Evan would stomp his feet, swing his arms, and bite and kick to let us know he was unhappy.” Lorna remembers, “Evan’s strong curiosity and intelligence made it hard to keep track of him. I couldn’t shower, or even turn my head, without him trying to escape from the house or get into something he shouldn’t. We even had to put spring-loaded locks on the doors to keep him inside.”
Family vacations sometimes weren’t relaxing or fun for the Zaloudek family. Evan had to constantly be doing something he enjoyed, and he couldn’t handle situations where he didn’t know what to expect. Lorna remembers, “If he felt a little uneasy or became anxious, he would have a meltdown and would just want to go home.”
When Evan was nine, the Zaloudek family took him to the Florida Keys for two weeks to see Dr. David Nathanson, who specializes in dolphin therapy. “Never would I have guessed that swimming with dolphins would be a life-changing breakthrough for Evan. He showed no fear, even though he was swimming in the ocean with huge dolphins. Dr. Nathanson had visual boards with different pictures on them like a ball, dog, and house, and Evan had to say what the picture was in order to get into the water with the dolphins,” Lorna says. After those two weeks in the Keys when Evan was rewarded with interactive communication time with dolphins, he began to express new noises that eventually made words, that then formed into small sentences. This was an answered prayer for the Zaloudek family.
After graduating from high school with a special education diploma, Evan was attending a transitional program when he was fortunate enough to get offered a grant into a workshop for challenged adults to work at NorthPointe Resources, in Zion, Illinois. “Shortly after starting work there, Dina Donohue-Chase, a Director at NorthPointe, called me and said there was a horse therapy program that she felt would be fun for Evan,” Lorna says. “So, I asked him about going to ride horses, and he crossed his arms, stomped his feet and said, ‘No way, Mom!’ When the riding session was about to begin, Dina called me again and urged me to sign Evan up. I did just that, not giving him a choice this time. That day, he got on the bus and spent the morning riding. At 21 years old, another life-changing breakthrough happened for Evan. He discovered he loved horses.”
NorthPointe sent their clients to Partners For Progress on Friday mornings. PFP is an equine therapy program for physically and mentally challenged children and adults. The Zaloudek family only lived minutes from the barn, so Evan’s father took time off of work so he and Lorna could go watch Evan’s second lesson.
“His smile was from ear to ear, and I remember having tears in my eyes. My son, who never had been around horses, had found something so incredibly special. It was something that brought out so much happiness. So, I scheduled more lessons with their trainer, Jamie Herwald, and it didn’t take long for Evan to become an independent rider,” Lorna says. One evening he was riding Legend, a lesson and show horse at PFP.
When Evan got on and asked Legend to walk, the horse took a couple of steps and stopped. Evan asked again for a walk and Legend only took one step and immediately stopped. Evan got off of Legend and Jamie got on the horse. She had no problem getting Legend to move forward, so she had Evan mount up again, and the same thing happened. After a few more tries, I told Jamie it was okay, and they ended the lesson early. I didn’t understand at that time why the horse didn’t want to walk with him, but I shrugged it off as a fluke. Evan had a seizure the next morning, and I truly believe that Legend had sensed it. Later, during a neurology appointment, I asked the doctor if that was possible, and her reply was a definite yes. To me, that meant Legend not only sensed something was wrong but knew to take extra care of my son. Legend instantly became my favorite lesson horse,” Lorna remembers.
Evan was a fast learner, and as his horse knowledge grew, so did his riding skills. This landed Evan volunteer hours at the PFP barn where he helped groom, tack, and lead horses around the arena for other challenged riders. Lorna recalls, “We soon felt a bond with the barn staff, who all become special friends to us. Having new friends at the barn helped Evan become more social. He interacted with the riders and horses differently, and he looked forward to going to work each day. It provided Evan with an important purpose. He has made lifelong friends with the other employees and riders at PFP. They go out to dinner, go bowling, or to the movies almost weekly.”
In 2007, Evan started doing local horse shows with the PFP show program under Jamie’s guidance. Legend was Evan’s first show horse. Then, he began riding other program horses. “He loves showing, and I knew Evan had a future with horses and being in that show pen. There went our retirement!” Lorna laughs.
Volunteering turned into a great opportunity for Evan. Diane Helgeland, the Executive Director of PFP, offered him a job as a Lesson Treatment Assistant in January of 2008. He now works there approximately 30 hours a week and trains with Jamie four to five hours each week. Evan began showing with the PFP Special Olympics team in 2008. Then, in 2009, the Zaloudek family decided to purchase and donate an APHA mare named Rockin Party Girl to the PFP therapy program.
It was now time for Evan to enter the show pen, an opportunity made possible by the creation of EWD classes through AQHA and NSBA. The Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International, along with the staff at NSBA, helped create a program for individuals with both mental and physical disabilities. The program was for riders that wouldn’t have an opportunity to benefit from the show industry, and this opened the gates to challenged exhibitors. The NSBA approved and offered Equestrians with Disabilities (EWD) classes at the NSBA World Show in 2009. In 2015, AQHA added EWD classes at the Congress, including both Supported and Independent division classes.
Supported riders may have special tack that makes it possible for an exhibitor to show. The horse is usually shown in a bridle and halter with handlers and possibly side walkers to assist. Independent exhibitors are unassisted in the arena; however, for rider safety, there is a handler close by with a lead line. Over the years, as show planners realized that riders could do more difficult patterns, the Showmanship, Equitation, Horsemanship, and Trail patterns became more complex, which surprised a lot of people outside the EWD circle. Showing at the World Show and Congress levels, riders are finding these patterns more challenging, which compels them to practice harder. They are expected to go through the rail work for the pleasure classes following AQHA rules and guidelines.
Lorna explains, “In the beginning, I think judges had a difficult time knowing how to judge these classes. After several shows, they realized that they are expected to judge the EWD classes just as they would any other class. We don’t want special favors for our riders and horses. We want to be treated just like everyone else.”
A current NSBA and/or AQHA membership, a medical diagnosis, and adaptive equipment form are needed to compete in the EWD classes. Exhibitors aren’t required to own their own horses, and they can show more than one horse in a Trail class. An Independent rider and Supported rider in the EWD classes will often share a horse with other riders. As the saying goes, “it takes a village,” to organize possible tack changes before the next class begins. “At first, Evan was a little jealous when it came to sharing his horses with another member of the show team, especially when the horse was new to the barn. After a while, it became easier for him.” Lorna says.
When exhibiting at the NSBA World Show and Congress level, Evan shows more excitement and anticipation than nerves. He doesn’t have any jitters or rituals that he has to go through and is just overjoyed to be there with his friends and his horses. “Evan is a social butterfly at the shows,” Lorna says. “He engages with people freely and is more communicative, especially with other riders. Besides being in the show pen competing, Evan’s goals are to congratulate as many riders as he possibly can by giving them his proud thumbs up or way-to-go handshake, always with his smiling face.”
“At the NSBA World Show in 2011, Evan came out of his trail class placing eighth with Looks Radical To Me, a PFP program show horse. He was swinging a water bucket in the air with a huge grin on his face. When he saw me, he yelled, ‘Mom! I won a water bucket!’ He was just as thrilled to have won that bucket than a belt buckle or trophy. He doesn’t appear to care so much if he wins a trophy, although he really does like to win. He’s just happy to be at a show competing. At that same World Show, Evan and his horse won the Hunter Under Saddle World Championship,” Lorna says.
In 2012, the Zaloudek family purchased Evan’s next show horse, An Iron Meldoy, and donated her to PFP. People have often questioned the name “Meldoy.” The registration papers should have said Melody, but her name was accidentally misspelled and couldn’t be changed. “Evan gave her the barn name Savana. He came across her while watching a horse video on YouTube. That year, Evan won another World Championship in Trail while riding Savana,” Lorna adds.
Cuiton All Deckedout, or “Dekker,” as they call him, was purchased for Evan at the 2016 Congress and was also donated to PFP. His parents joked that this purchase paid off when Evan and Dekker were Congress Champions in Western Pleasure the following year. Then, right before the 2018 Congress, Dekker was injured and Evan had to show four other horses from PFP’s barn. He showed a mare named Lazy Lopin in Hunter Under Saddle and a gelding named Dontsassthismachine in Western Pleasure. For Trail, Evan rode two mares, Romantic Dress and Ima Willy Good One, who he also showed in Showmanship and Horsemanship. Lorna remembers, “During his Showmanship pattern, Evan fell. His feet and the horse’s hooves tangled, and he tripped. He managed to hang on to the lead, popped right up, and brushed off his suit. He didn’t show any disappointment and didn’t seem to be fazed by what had happened. He was allowed to start over and finished last.”
Two weeks before this year’s NSBA World Show, Evan injured his ankle and wasn’t able to work. He only went to the barn for a couple of hours to practice Trail. At the show, he rode two horses in the EWD Independent Trail Class. He rode Dekker first and then he rode Huntin Somethin Hot. When the placings were being called, Evan and Dekker placed seventh and Evan went out of the arena. It wasn’t until Evan’s friend, Sara Grace Carowick, was announced as Reserve, that Jamie checked with the gate official to see where Evan and his other horse had finished. They were the World Champions! Lorna explains, “I was helping Evan with his horse when Jamie told us. We were both confused, and I remember he had a weird smile on his face when I told him he had won the class. He gave me a big hug and waddled into the arena dragging his chaps. In his excitement to congratulate Sara and receive his trophy, he almost photo bombed Sara’s picture. I just had to laugh to myself. That’s my boy!”
This past year, the family bought and donated another gelding named, Luken For Wins, aka “Tucker.” Evan and Tucker were World Champions in Hunter Under Saddle. He was also a World Champion in Western Pleasure with Dekker. He also placed fifth in Showmanship and seventh in Horsemanship riding Dekker in those two classes.
There are so many people who have been a huge part of Evan’s story. All of these teachers helped him blossom into a wonderful man. His love of horses and showing would’ve never happened if it wasn’t for Dina Donohue-Chase believing in her heart that riding horses would be beneficial for him. Diane Helgeland made a decision to take a chance on Evan by making him a part of PFP’s staff. And then there is Jamie Herwald, whose dedication to Evan and the rest of the show team is unwavering. Through all this, he has four “adoptive, little sisters” and their mother, Amanda Braden, who love him. Lastly, there is Evan’s aunt Aleta, who has come to the NSBA World Show for 11 years now to watch him ride and be a part of the EWD family.
Evan’s passion for this sport is a true inspiration as he has overcome physical and mental limitations while succeeding in his EWD show career. His enthusiasm is a reminder to show for fun and to honor the efforts of our fellow exhibitors. This EWD rider has proven that having a disability shouldn’t keep anyone from entering the gates of our industry. With a smile, thumbs up, and a handshake, we salute an Equestrian With Devotion, Evan Zaloudek.