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Equine therapy nonprofit adds more horsepower to its Myakka facility

With news horses on the way, Sarasota Manatee Association for Riding Therapy can make a greater impact providing equine therapy to the community.

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Although Arlon is 11 years old, a mature age for a quarter horse, he is about to be showered with toys and games.

It's not that the staff at Sarasota Manatee Association for Riding Therapy near Myakka City expect its newest addition to be playful. It's a much different purpose.

Quarter horses can tend to be skittish, and horses at SMART need to be calm as they become part of the therapeutic horse-related programs that provide services to children and adults with special needs.

Instructors will desensitize new horses using those different toys and games. For example, to help Arlon, who arrived in August, adjust to his new environment, he will be taken into an arena and have some different toys tossed at him. The goal is for him to not react.

SMART instructor Terri Arnold already has created a special bond with Arlon and has learned more about his personality.

“He’s very curious,” she said. “He’s willing, calm and very good natured.”

The calm and good natured parts made him an excellent candidate to make an impact at SMART.

Magic was a beloved horse at SMART and the inspiration for one of the nonprofit's programs. (File photo)
Magic was a beloved horse at SMART and the inspiration for one of the nonprofit's programs. (File photo)

Arlon's arrival brought SMART's total of horses to 19, although four are generally retired. 

Even those four horses are retired in terms of being ridden by the clients, SMART will use the horses in other capacities.

Three of SMART's horses, Magic, Jazz and Carly, died in August. The horses were used for different programs at the nonprofit. For example, Magic, who was blind, was the inspiration for the nonprofit's Horse Sense Literacy Program. The program is designed to increase children’s desire to read by introducing and teaching children to Magic and having them read “Magic: One SMART Horse.”

Carly was 36 years old, Magic was 27 years old and Jazz was 29 years old. All three were retired. 

"They touched thousands of lives," Blitz said. "They were the key part of programming."

SMART is hosting a celebration of life for Carly, Magic and Jazz at 11:30 a.m. Sept. 13. 

As SMART grows, adding additional horses in key to the programs. 

“We don’t want to overwork our horses,” said Ilee Finocchiaro, a certified therapeutic riding instructor for SMART. “That’s a big priority of ours. Having the extra horses on property makes it a lot easier on the herd and for us as well.”

SMART's herd will be joined by two Icelandic horses, which tend to be on the smaller side for horses, coming in September, bringing SMART’s total to 21. 

With the three additional horses, Rebecca Blitz, the executive director of SMART, said the nonprofit will be able to take on about 40 more clients as a result. 

Mila Reinisch, who is 10, gets Gypsy to canter around the arena. With more horses, Sarasota Manatee Association for Riding Therapy can serve more clients. (File photo)
Mila Reinisch, who is 10, gets Gypsy to canter around the arena. With more horses, Sarasota Manatee Association for Riding Therapy can serve more clients. (File photo)

SMART currently has had a waitlist with 17 people hoping to receive therapeutic therapy and participate in SMART’s programs. Every additional horse reduces that waitlist. 

“This is an opportunity for us to be able to help the community,” Blitz said. 

Among SMART's clients are individuals with disabilities, veterans, students and breast cancer survivors. 

Finocchiaro said it takes a lot of conditioning to get horses ready for the therapeutic riding aspect of what the nonprofit provides.

Instructors do groundwork and simulation lessons to get the horses adjusted to the clients mounting the horses in different ways, such as using a lift. 

“There’s a good month or so that goes into conditioning with them before we even consider using them for any lessons,” Finocchiaro said. “Without them, we wouldn’t be able to do what we do, so it’s about taking it at their pace and never forcing them to do anything they might not be comfortable with.”

Working with unbalanced riders can actually affect a horse's own balance and motion so the horses must be prepared for some unfamiliar situations. SMART often has someone walking on the sides of the horses and a horse leader walking along with a rider and the horse.

“The ultimate goal is keeping everything safe,” Arnold said. “It’s all about safety for the riders, and the horses because they’re our partners.”

SMART tries to acquire younger horses so they will be involved in their programming for years. Arnold said younger horses tend to have fewer health issues and more energy. 

Once the staff decides a horse needs to be retired, that horse will live the rest of its life at SMART’s facility. Finocchiaro said the staff always considers the horse’s health and wellbeing.

Now with three instructors who are certified as an Equine Specialist in Mental Health, along with other staff members and its volunteers, SMART can combine those numbers with the additional horses to assist more clients. 

MadieGrace DuBuse, the new equine manager, started with SMART in August and said she loves her new job. 

DuBuse has been working with horses for 12 years and working at SMART means she also can keep her horse, Cheyenne, at the facility. 

“This is a dream come true,” DuBuse said. “I couldn’t imagine a better place to be working."

Along with Arnold and Finocchiaro, SMART's other Equine Specialist in Mental Health is Lisa Morningstar.

Because SMART is a Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International center and the nonprofits’ three instructors are Equine Specialist in Mental Health and Learning certified, the nonprofit will be able to host training for anyone who wants to become Equine Specialist in Mental Health and Learning certified. 

Blitz said PATH International will provide the training in the fall. Call 941-322-2000 for more information. SMART is located at 4640 County Road 675, Bradenton.


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