Being on a team means being able to trust one’s teammates. For Special Olympics Durham County athlete Nathan Klein, that teammate is a horse.
This summer, Klein will represent Special Olympics North Carolina (SONC) at the Special Olympics USA Games, held June 5-12, in Orlando, Florida. Klein, competing in equestrian, is one of 75 Team SONC athletes who will journey to Orlando in hopes of winning gold in their respective sport.
Now a high school senior, Klein learned the definition of teamwork on the back of a horse, starting out as an 8-year-old Special Olympics athlete. At 9 years old, Klein would meet the horse who would, two years later, lead him to Palomino Horse Breeders Association (PHBA) World Show. Kelsanova and Klein made an instant connection.
“When I rode with him, it instantly clicked because he was just as goofy and silly as me,” said Klein. “He would play with his tongue, fold it in half and chew on it. He was easily distracted, very slobbery, not like me. That’s where I draw the line.”
At the age of 11, Klein won first place in his division at the PHBA World Show. Klein and Kelsanova would also compete together in the American Quarter Horse Congress. The Congress is the world’s largest single-breed horse show and hosts a division for equestrians with disabilities. For Klein, this highest level he thought he would compete at, until qualifying for the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games.
Competing alongside three Team SONC equestrian athletes, coached by Heather Glazer, Klein will compete in three classes – equitation, trail and pole bending. In equitation, Klein will exhibit horsemanship skills such as walking, jogging and loping. In trail, Klein will navigate an obstacle course, which includes cones, poles and backing the horse up into an L-shaped space. For pole bending, Klein and his horse will zip around six poles, competing against the clock.
“I have had the pleasure of working with Nathan over the past 10 years, as he started riding at our barn when he was only 7 years old,” said Glazer. “He’s still full of energy and passionate about horses. Sometimes, I wonder if he’s taught me more than I’ve taught him over the years.”
“Special Olympics has given me a way to express myself,” said Klein. “It has given me exactly what I needed. It’s a place where I can ride horses with people, not exactly like me, but who face similar trials and tribulations as me.”
On a larger stage, riding a different horse, Klein will channel all that he has learned from Kelsanova when he enters the ring at the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games. Though Kelsanova retired in 2017 at the age of 25, Klein recently paid his old teammate a visit to wish him well.
“After many years of separation, I finally rode him again,” said Klein. “Even if I never see him again, I’m glad I got to visit him that one time. Although, I do hope to see him at least one more time before I leave. That horse has a special place in my heart.”
Following the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games, Klein will begin attending college classes at the University of Arizona as part of their Race Track Industry Program (RTIP). A highly selective program, less than 30 students are accepted to follow their dreams in the horse racing industry. For Klein, he is on track to become a racing announcer.
His first real taste of announcing took place at the SONC Equestrian Tournament, as he co-announced with SONC Board member and volunteer Perry Flynn.
“I have seen Nathan mature over many years as a gentleman who is a great sportsman and horseman,” said Flynn. “The audience at the SONC Equestrian Tournament, including myself, loves when he guest announces and fills downtime by telling fun facts about horses.”
Outside of his guest appearances with Flynn, Klein practices by muting races, overlaying his own commentary and calling the race live.
“Announcing has always kind of been in my blood when it comes to what I wanted to do with horse racing,” said Klein. “I’d always get out the little toys or whatever was available to me, sometimes it was pencils. I’d just call up a race, make up everybody and play around.”
Before he takes over on the microphone, Klein will take on Orlando. Regardless of the outcome, it will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience shared with his teammates, both human and horse.