For a team of nine riders, the dream of bringing an Olympic medal home came true last month when they competed in Florida’s annual Special Olympics Equestrian Sports Championship.
The riders, age 12 to 25, all take classes at Equine-Assisted Therapies of South Florida stables in Coconut Creek. In 2008 only four riders participated, so to see 11 participate this year and nine bring home medals is a “significant increase,” Mandy DeBord, the program’s executive director, said.
“The families get so much out of it,” DeBord said. “Their other kids might have swim meets or tournaments, but special needs kids don’t have that. It gives families a rallying point.”
Brenda Alber’s 18-year-old son, Trent, has been taking riding classes at EAT for six years and took home a bronze medal in equitation, which evaluates a rider’s ability to control his or her horse by issuing commands such as halt, back up, or change gait.
The classes, Alber said, have definitely helped her son focus both in and out of the ring.
“They have to pay a lot of attention to not just the horse, but the structure and their environment,” she said. “It also helps him with his physical posture and strength, and his entire physical demeanor is different just from riding.”
Trent has Williams syndrome, a genetic disorder that affects about one in every 10,000 people worldwide. Other riders at the stables have varying types of developmental delays, cerebral palsy, autism, Down syndrome, or other special needs, according to Coach Marla Bowman.
“Our lessons are based on teaching them riding skills, and we try to have them be as independent as possible,” she said. Each rider has a lead walker, who walks ahead of the horse, and a side-walker, who ensures the rider won’t fall off.
But sometimes the students don’t need a helper. That’s the case for 16-year-old Mariah Harris, who started riding horses when she was just two years old.
“I said, when can we get rid of the side-walkers?” laughed Mariah’s mom, Nancy Linley-Harris. She recounted a story of Mariah getting bucked off when she was 3-years-old, then crying because they put her horse back in the stall and wouldn’t let her get back on.
“That’s the only time she’s ever cried,” Linley-Harris said. “She knows what she’s doing, and when she goes horseback riding, she’s in her zone.”
Mariah still has a side-walker, but doesn’t need anyone to lead her around the arena.
“I love riding Hallory and my dream is to own my own horse or two horses,” Mariah said.
The ranch owns or leases about ten horses, Bowman said. Some are donated and others are on a free lease.
Julie Crank, whose 10-year-old triplets Maxwell, Josephine, and Hannah all take classes at the ranch, said riding horses brings confidence and smiles to her children.
“The biggest benefit to them is their self-esteem,” Crank said. “They’ve never been able to dance or take karate, so this is the first thing they’ve been able to excel at.”
Josephine took home a bronze medal in equitation and a fifth place in trail pattern at state, while Hannah and Maxell made it to the regional competition.
Equitation helps all of her children improve their communication skills, Crank said, because it makes them think about their vocabulary. They listen to the instructor give out commands, then they direct the horses — Fire, Sugar, and Jose — themselves.
“They just love to see their horses,” Crank said. The girls are learning how to trot, while Maxwell is excited for summer camp.”
And so is Trent, his mother said, “It’s a big part of his social structure,” Alber said. “As soon as it’s done, he can’t wait for next year.”
Broward County Special Olympics Medal Winners
Trent Alber, 18, Boca Raton: Bronze in equitation
David Cochran, 25, Tamarac: Bronze in equitation
Josephine Crank, 10, Margate: Bronze in equitation
Cassidy Giordanella, 20, Parkland: Gold in trail pattern
Mariah Harris, 16, Fort Lauderdale: Bronze in equitation
Shelby Kessler, 17, Coral Springs: Bronze in equitation
Payge Kessler, 12, Coral Springs: Gold in equitation
Alejandro Viso, 19, Pompano Beach: Silver in equitation
Hannah Woods, 17, Boynton Beach: Gold in dressage test
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