As Nick Drizos drove up to the new covered arena at Sarasota-Manatee Association for Riding Therapy, he had tears in his eyes.
“Twenty years I’ve been involved with (SMART),” he said. “The work that went into getting here today is incredible. A lot of people think of it as a pony ride, but it’s therapy.”
Work on SMART’s new covered arena finished Aug. 22, just in time for Sept. 15, the start of riding classes. SMART provides horseback riding therapy to children and adults with disabilities or other needs. SMART’s core program, SMART Riders, served 674 riders in 2017.
“This is a seven-year project in the making,” SMART Executive Director Brandi Ezell said. “For the past five years, we’ve been doing some heavy-duty fundraising to make this happen. This represents a slew of organizations and people who gave and gave.”
SMART has raised all but $27,000 of the $272,000 project.
It will need at least $40,000 more to complete Phase Two, which will include the addition of lighting, fans, electricity, four stalls, a mounting ramp and possibly a misting system.
“Now that this part is over, it’ll be back to beating the street,” Ezell said. “This shows people we’re investing in the program.”
SMART Riders shuts down for the summer, typically in mid- to late June through mid-September, because of the heat and summer rains. However, the covered arena will address both those issues. It will ensure lessons are not canceled because of inclement weather or muddy arena conditions.
“Having this covered arena will allow us to have some of our programs year round,” Ezell said, noting some riders
lose the improvements they gained in motor skills through the program during the three-month gap in therapy services.
Ezell said part of SMART’s long-term plan is to reconfigure the parking area by the arena so there is a covered student drop-off area.
SMART purchased its campus at 4640 County Road 675 on Dec. 8, 2011, and finished moving into the facility March 1, 2012 — just in time for the organization’s 25th anniversary. At that time, organization leaders envisioned adding a cover to the arena so classes could continue rain or shine.
In addition to its SMART Riders therapeutic riding program, SMART also offers therapeutic carriage riding; Warriors in Transition, a monthly equine-assisted learning workshop for veterans to help deal with challenges from multiple deployments and the transition back to civilian life; Horse Sense Literacy, a program that pairs a book about one of SMART’s horses with a tour of the facility; and Adventures in Learning, an educational learning program that combines equine care with reading, writing and math skills.