His love of animals and community involvement inspired Andy Steingasser to take the reins as board president of Equest
DAVID TAFFET | Senior Staff Writer
As Equest marks its 35th anniversary with expanded equine therapy services at the new Texas Horse Park in South Dallas and a gala celebration, Andy Steingasser is taking over as chairman of the board for the organization.
Over the years, Steingasser has served on the boards of a number of organizations around the city, and he is currently a member of the Dallas Summer Musicals board. Community involvement and volunteer work are something, he said, that come naturally. In fact, it runs in the family: his mother was very philanthropic.
But it was a much darker event that first prompted Steingasser to dive into community involvement.
On Jan 28, 1990, he and his partner, Daniel Mijares, were walking to their car, which was parked in the 4100 block of Dickason Street, after an evening out in Oak Lawn. As they walked, the couple passed a man and a woman who were standing at a street corner. Steingasser and Mijares continued on to their vehicle, and had already gotten in — Mijares in the driver’s seat — when the man and woman they had passed approached the car.
The man was pointing a pistol at Steingasser and Mijares while the woman tried to open the locked car door. As Mijares tried to drive away, the man fired several shots at them, striking Mijares in the head and shoulder, before the two suspects fled on foot.
Mijares was shot at about 3:15 a.m. on that Sunday morning; he died the next day Parkland Hospital. The shooting was one of a series of attacks that police at the time believed to be gang related. It remains unsolved.
That year was the height of the AIDS crisis in Dallas, and the chorale was doing much more than performing concerts. Members were dying and the chorale performed at every one of their funerals. Rehearsals were more than just rehearsals: They were a place that survivors comforted each other.
Steingasser remained a member of the chorale for 23 years.
Steingasser said he grew up around animals in Austria where his father worked at the U.S. Embassy. His family always had dogs and cats back then, so in Dallas, he volunteered at the SPCA and became a board member for the Humane Society of Dallas County.
Equest was a natural fit for him. Steingasser became familiar with the organization 12 years ago when he toured the organization’s facility in Wylie with his Leadership Dallas class and began volunteering with the Autistic Teaching Center.
He described some of the triumphs he’s seen — both large and small — at Equest. One of Equest’s clients was Jonathan Wentz, who was born with cerebral palsy. He trained at the Wylie facility and entered the 2012 Summer Paralympics, finishing fourth in his equestrian event. At the time, he was a senior at SMU.
About a month after the paralympics, Wentz died at the age of 21. The cause of death wasn’t reported.
Steingasser said he’s seen so many successes at Equest where they work with children with more than 100 different types of disorders. “The kid who usually sits on the side becomes the center of attention,” he said.
He described working with an autistic child who was wearing a t-shirt with a picture of Grumpy from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. As the boy was riding, Steingasser walked alongside the horse, holding the boy in place. As he walked, Steingasser mentioned that he liked the boy’s shirt. The child responded: “Best Picture 1939.”
After the ride, a teacher told Steingasser the child doesn’t speak and doesn’t let anyone touch him.
Equest CEO Lili Kellogg had even more stories. She said some are simple, but many are more complex. One of her favorites is about a family who adopted 11 special needs children.
“Nine of those rode with us,” Kellogg said.
One of the nine children was doing therapeutic running and was sitting on her horse waiting her turn. As she waited, the horse began sneezing and the girl started laughing. “Seven years we’ve had that child and never heard her laugh,” Kellogg said the mother told her.
Another client, this one with Down Syndrome, showed remarkable progress in school after participating at Equest. At a parent-teacher conference, the teacher told the parents their daughter’s handwriting had recently improved dramatically. The parents couldn’t imagine why, but said they had recently doubled up on her riding lessons at Equest.
Kellogg attributed the improvement in the girl’s handwriting to the strength she developed in her wrist from holding the reins and her increased confidence that came from controlling a 1,200-pound animal.
Equest opened in 1981 with five clients, two horses, one instructor and 10 volunteers. Today, the organization serves 400 clients with 45 therapy horses, 12 certified riding instructors, four therapists and more than 500 volunteers who donate more than 40,000 hours of service a year.
Each client costs $6,500 per year.
Equest’s clients also include military veterans, some with PTSD, others with physical disabilities. Most costs are subsidized for clients, but for veterans, 100 percent of the fees are underwritten.
Every Equest client since the organization was founded has experienced improvement in at least one category — the top five being physical, social skills and confidence, communication, daily living skills and behavior, Kellog said. One out of five clients has reduced or eliminated daily medications.
Kellogg called Steingasser a phenomenal board president.
“He’s very involved with various aspects of our operation and keeps the directors involved,” she said.
She said he has a lot of common sense and passion, something apparent to anyone who hears him talk about Equest.
On May 7, Equest’s 35th anniversary gala takes place from 6-10 p.m. at the Texas Horse Park, 811 Pemberton Hill Road. Steingasser called the dress, “equestrian western chic.” The down-home cooking will be served family-style. Cary Pierce provides entertainment and horse and rider demonstrations will take place. Tickets are $250.
On May 14, more than 70 client-riders will compete at the Spring Show from 8 a.m.-5 p.m. at the Wylie facility, 3800 Troy Road. The event is free to spectators.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 29, 2016.