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SMART expands its reach in east Bradenton

Sarasota Manatee Association for Riding Therapy expands its programming to reach more community members.

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Jazmin Russell held a bowl filled with food for horses and inched toward Gallagher, a horse resting in his stable at Sarasota Manatee Association for Riding Therapy.

Russell, who was on a field trip to SMART with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Manatee County on March 18, had never been around a horse and was nervous to feed one for the first time. 

She gripped the bowl as best she could as Gallagher ate.

“I was kind of nervous first seeing the horses, but it was fun,” Russell said. “It was a little weird at first [feeding Gallagher] because he almost took the bowl out of my hands.”

The Boys & Girls Clubs field trip was part of SMART’s efforts to expand programming and offerings to provide more opportunities for nonprofits and community members to get involved with the association.

“My whole goal is bringing the community out here to SMART and letting people know we’re here and how we can give back as well,” said Rebecca Blitz, the executive director of SMART. “A lot of people didn’t know we existed, even though we’ve been here since 1987. I knew there were so many opportunities for us to work more in the community to begin new programs.”

The pandemic left SMART in need of funds as the nonprofit was forced to close its programs and cancel its biggest fundraiser of the year.

Now as more people get vaccinated and feel more comfortable venturing out, Blitz said starting these new programs was perfect timing.

The new programs include one geared toward cancer survivors (Reins of Hope) and another for first responders (which has yet to be named).

The programs will not only benefit the participants but also generate funds for SMART.

Valentina Ruiz, Isabella Torijano-Guerrero and Christopher Seqovia-Deleon pet Norman.
Valentina Ruiz, Isabella Torijano-Guerrero and Christopher Seqovia-Deleon pet Norman.

“Our volunteers are coming back, and we’re starting to create awareness,” Blitz said. “A lot of those programs create awareness in the community. It’s a win-win.”

Starting April 5, SMART will host those new programs once a month on a Monday.

Much like SMART’s Horse Power for Veterans programs, Reins of Hope and the first responders program will be monthly equine assisted learning workshops to focus on leadership, team-building, and physical and emotional well-being. Activities, such as learning about grooming and herd dynamics, will develop participants’ confidence, personal growth and development, and independence.

Ilee Finocchiaro, an instructor at SMART, said the program will help build participants’ confidence while connecting with the horses.

Although Finocchiaro said veterans, for example, might be misunderstood by people in general after returning from their service, horses make no judgments.

“Horses can talk just by using their body language,” she said.

For more information about SMART, go to


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