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New executive director brings fresh ideas for SMART growth

As the new executive director of Sarasota Manatee Association for Riding Therapy, Mark Hiser has plans to make the organization even more visible.

Mark Hiser believes in the healing power of horses.
Mark Hiser believes in the healing power of horses.
Photo by Liz Ramos
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Growing up in Rising Sun, Ohio, Mark Hiser spent every day around horses. 

His family had more than 100 horses and, from a young age, he was riding and competing in horse shows. He has spent most of his life caring for and training horses, which has led to success at horse shows all over the country. In 2019, Hiser started centering his attention on the rehabilitation of horses using cryotherapy, MagnaWave and other rehabilitation methods through his Lakewood Ranch-based company, American Equine Rehabilitation Center. Now, Hiser is stepping into a new role. As the newly appointed executive director of Sarasota Manatee Association for Riding Therapy, he will continue to help horses but also focus on the people riding them. SMART provides opportunities for people with special needs of all kinds to exercise their bodies, minds and spirits through therapeutic horseback riding and carriage driving programs. Since its inception in 1987, the nonprofit has provided more than 47,000 therapeutic riding, driving and equine assisted learning program hours to more than 5,600 individuals. We spoke to Hiser recently about his new role.

What makes the connection between a person and a horse so special?

I’ve seen people in the worst situations in their life helped by a horse. I met a guy in Oklahoma who is autistic and tried to commit suicide two or three times. He flat out said the only thing that saved his life were horses. He’s riding Western dressage and competing at the world level now. I think (horses) touch everyone in different ways. People always stop and wave when they see a horse. I think horses just have that “come pat me” energy.

Does riding therapy also benefit horses?

I think horses know when they’ve done something good. They want to do what you want them to do. If you have inexperienced people around a horse, the horse is going to try to teach them. The more the rider is up on the horse, the more the horse remembers that rider. The horses know that they did their job. There are people who say horses can’t talk, but look at their eyes and they’ll tell you if they’re happy or not. 

What are some new initiatives you want to bring to SMART?
Hiser wants to build the nonprofit's mini horse program to help more people.
Photo by Liz Ramos

I want to create skill-building programs and classes for business groups, schools, the YMCA, the Boys and Girls Club and others. It brings recognition to what we’re doing and the horses like the interaction and attention. Something I really want to bring in are horse shows. We’d provide opportunities for our clients to compete. I’d also like to open an obstacle course to the public.

What are the top three items on your wish list for 2024?

I don’t want to leave a veteran or a kid who comes to us behind. I want to make sure that every one of them is included in our programs. That’s my No. 1 goal right off the bat. I also want more volunteers and to be able to offer them educational opportunities. And I want everyone to know who we are. If they know who we are, then we’re doing our job. I want them to meet the horses and see the facility and also have fun events out here. It’s not always about the horses. Sometimes it’s just about the gathering.

Where do you see SMART in 10 years?

I have big visions and I think big. My dad and my grandpa always told me, “Don’t ever let anyone stand in front of your vision.” If you don’t dream big, how do you get there? I’d love to have at least three more SMARTs running in Florida so we can keep going with these veterans and the kids and adults and grow, grow, grow.”



Liz Ramos

Liz Ramos covers education and community for East County. Before moving to Florida, Liz was an education reporter for the Lynchburg News & Advance in Virginia for two years after graduating from the Missouri School of Journalism.

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