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Riding therapy nonprofit welcomes new executive director

Mark Hiser wants to use his experience of working with "misfit horses" to expand the programming at Sarasota Manatee Association for Riding Therapy.

Mark Hiser, the new executive director at Sarasota Manatee Association for Riding Therapy, has been around horses his whole life. He looks forward to taking on his new role.
Mark Hiser, the new executive director at Sarasota Manatee Association for Riding Therapy, has been around horses his whole life. He looks forward to taking on his new role.
Photo by Liz Ramos
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East County’s Mark Hiser was scared as he sat on his horse, Dream and Miracles. 

He had never competed in a Western dressage show before he competed in the Western Dressage Association of America's Championship Show in 2021 in Guthrie, Oklahoma.

He had started taking lessons 30 days before that event.

“I knew it was crazy, but I’ve done so many crazy things in the horse business,” Hiser said. 

He had spoken to his father, Bob Hiser, the night before he competed and took to heart his father's words of wisdom. 

“He told me, ‘Just do it like you’ve done everything else. Set your mind to it and do the best you can,’” Hiser said. “I remember when I saluted at the end of my test, I looked down at my horse and was like, ‘Boom ... holy moly.’'”

He had won. 

Hiser dedicated his performance in the championship show to his dad, who underwent surgery for a brain tumor only days before. 

His father was his first call after winning that day and he remains his first call whenever he has big news.

So when Hiser accepted the position as the new executive director for Sarasota Manatee Association for Riding Therapy, the first person he told was his dad. 

Hiser is replacing Rebecca Blitz, who stepped down as executive director due to health reasons. She has mentored and trained Hiser to start his new role with the East County nonprofit, and she will remain on the nonprofit’s board and continue to support Hiser and SMART.

In his lifetime of working with horses, showing horses and helping horses through rehabilitation, taking on the role of executive director at SMART is unlike anything he’s done before, he said.

Heart for horses

Hiser has been around horses his whole life. Growing up in Rising Sun, Ohio, his family had more than 100 horses. From Hackney ponies to Percherons, Belgian horses and draft horses, he was quick to learn everything about horses. 

His love for horses stems from his first pony, Cinnamon. She was a Shetland miniature horse.

Mark Hiser, the new executive director of Sarasota Manatee Association for Riding Therapy, loves taking a band of misfits and turning them into high-achieving horses.
Photo by Liz Ramos

“She followed me everywhere,” Hiser said. “You can have all the ponies in the world and every horse in the world, but that was mine. She helped me when I was down. She was my inspiration. I was her inspiration because ponies are the same way. We had a bond together that literally pushed me to where I am today.”

When Hiser was 5-years-old, he remembered driving Cinnamon at a county fair in Ohio. He was competing against Hackney ponies in a show competition where each horse would pull a cart. 

“My dad and my grandpa made me drive her in a class that she had no business being in,” he said. “I won the class with a pony that didn’t belong there. I had no idea what I was doing, but she was leading the way.”

Hiser always believed in what he considered “misfit horses.” The horses he showed and competed with were never horses that cost thousands of dollars and were bred to compete. He said they were typically horses no one wanted that were amazing athletes. He helped to turn them into winners. 

“I never had the high-dollar horse that I would show against,” Hiser said. “I always had that little thought in the back of my mind, ‘Well, you can go buy the expensive horse, but I’m going to get the one that nobody wants, and I’m going to beat you with her.’ That was my philosophy because all of them had a purpose. I believed all of them could do it. I just had to figure out how to get them to do it to the level of something else that was bought to do it.”

Hiser recalled competing with his misfits at the Iowa State Fair where he had the best six-hitch event (six horses pulling a wagon) of his life. 

“I remember telling my mom and my dad that this is it, this is the show,” he said. “I said, ‘The band of misfits, it’s their moment.’”

After competing, Hiser said he received a standing ovation in the coliseum. Hiser and his horses beat three of the best six-hitch teams in the country. 

“Everybody said we looked like a multi-million dollar hitch (team), and we weren’t,” Hiser said. “We were grind-it-out fighters to make ourselves look good. Those kinds of moments put me to where I am today. I took what I could get, and I made it happen. If we never gave up on what we did, how could you lose?”

A SMART plan

Mark Hiser, the new executive director at Sarasota Manatee Association for Riding Therapy, wants to build the nonprofit's mini horse program to help more people.
Photo by Liz Ramos

Hiser said SMART’s horses also are somewhat of a band of misfits. Most are older and retired. He wants to help them reach their full potential as they continue to provide programming and lessons for veterans, individuals with disabilities and others. 

“The sky’s the limit so why not push for the stars,” he said. “I’ve always done go big or go home my whole life. Everybody’s always told me, ‘Why can’t you just take a small bite like everyone else?’ I want the whole pie.”

SMART has eight horses for its programming, but Hiser would like to have at least 25. He wants every horse to be trained for all programming so they can be rotated throughout the programs and lessons to allow horses to have breaks. 

Hiser already is working to increase the number of mini horses at SMART to 10. The nonprofit currently has eight. The mini horses go into the community to provide therapy services at nonprofits, businesses and other organizations. 

The mini horses also are a stepping stone for people who are intimidated by the full-sized horses. 

“It’s a great, big world out there,” Hiser said. “Sometimes you just don’t jump in. Sometimes you have to go to the small side and then jump into the big world.”

On top of expanding programming, Hiser wants to focus on bringing the community to SMART. 

He plans to have weekly events, such as bingo and taco nights or line dancing nights. The events will give people an opportunity to meet the horses, learn about SMART and have fun. 

“We want to get the traffic here because if the traffic’s here, everything else flows,” Hiser said. “I want them to meet the horses, see the facility but also have fun events out here because it’s about fun. It’s not always about the horses. Sometimes maybe it’s just about the gathering.”

Hiser also wants SMART to start hosting horse shows in the nonprofit’s arena.

Hiser wants SMART to be affiliated with the Western Dressage Association of America and its therapeutic program. 

He wants to see SMART riders competing in the WDAA’s exceptional rider and therapeutic rider classes at the world championship. 

That’s something we can provide, and it’ll set us apart,” Hiser said. “I want to be the facility that’s so far apart from everyone else, they can’t compare. They want to either copy us or ask us how they can do that so we can expand to them and help them out.”

Hiser said being able to compete at the world championship show will give the riders a sense of accomplishment no matter the results, just like he felt competing at the championship show in 2021. 



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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