Longtime volunteer named a 'community hero' by Tampa Bay Lightning.
| 8:40 a.m. January 31, 2018
Wearing blue jeans and work boots, Gail Clifton led a Haflinger pony named Carly to a Sarasota Manatee Association for Riding Therapy barn, where she slipped a pad over Carly’s back and strapped on an English saddle.
Soon, they headed toward the arena, where students waited anxiously to ride.
She gave Carly, her favorite SMART horse, one last pat.
“We go way back,” Clifton said. “She was our first Haflinger.”
That was 16 years ago.
Clifton, a volunteer at SMART for 21 of its 30 years, gives the horses credit for soothing anxious souls, strengthening disabled bodies and restoring confidence to children and adults through SMART’s therapeutic horseback riding program for individuals with physical, mental and emotional challenges.
Although she tries to stay out of it, the 63-year-old Clifton is now in the spotlight.
Because of her dedication, SMART soon will be starting construction of a $400,000 covered arena. On Dec. 29, the Tampa Bay Lightning named Clifton its 291st Community Hero and donated $50,000 to SMART, which will put the money toward construction.
“I admire Gail for everything she’s done over the years,” said Winny Rush, who nominated Clifton for the Hero award. “She always gives the horses credit for everything, but SMART would not be SMART without her dedication and her commitment to that organization. I absolutely put her up on a pedestal.
“She’s an inspiration. She’s dedicated. She’s brilliant. She’s kind. She involves everybody. Her desire to serve — she’s Gail. She’s just an amazing woman,” Rush said.
Rush was involved with special projects at SMART five years ago, as an employee of Argosy University. At her suggestion, the school spent a month at SMART constructing a grooming ramp for the organization. Since then, she’s watched Clifton in action.
Three years ago, Rush saw the covered arena project on SMART’s “wish list” and began nominating Clifton annually for the Hero Award, both as a way to recognize her and to raise funds for SMART.
This year, her efforts paid off.
Soon after the Lightning grant came through, other fundraising fell into place with another $25,000 grant and a $120,000 pledge by an undisclosed private donor. Clifton said the remaining $200,000 had been raised through SMART fundraisers and private donations.
The covered arena has been a dream of Clifton’s for years because it will allow SMART to continue its services throughout the year rather than shutting down during the hot summers, or on rainy days.
“We have the perfect facility here, but we are unable to have lessons July, August and part of September because of heat and rain and inclement weather,” Clifton said. “That’s three months of lost programs. Once this (cover) is up, we’ll be able to have a year-round program. That’s really the last big thing we need here.”
The cover also will provide shade during lessons for SMART horses, riders and volunteers, making it much more comfortable.
Clifton officially stepped down as SMART’s volunteer executive director in March 2017 but continues to volunteer twice a week.
She hopes to concentrate on just being a regular volunteer — giving lessons, working in the barn and handling horses. She hopes to develop an exercise program for the horses that will help them unwind from the stress of carrying riders who sometimes shout, pull on reins or are unstable.
Clifton said she’s exploring other “retirement” options, but will remain a SMART volunteer no matter what else she pursues.