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SMART provides competitive opportunities for exceptional riders

Riders with physical, social or emotional disabilities representing Sarasota Manatee Association for Riding Therapy compete at western dressage shows, which give a confidence boost while also providin

Becky Calevro competes in the Florida State Western Dressage Championships with the help of Mark Hiser, the executive director of Sarasota Manatee Association for Riding Therapy. She is the first exceptional rider to represent SMART in a competition.
Becky Calevro competes in the Florida State Western Dressage Championships with the help of Mark Hiser, the executive director of Sarasota Manatee Association for Riding Therapy. She is the first exceptional rider to represent SMART in a competition.
Image courtesy of Keli Wakeley Photography
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Becky Calevro’s victory at the Florida State Western Dressage Championships meant more than taking home a first-place award. 

Calevro, an exceptional rider representing Sarasota Manatee Association for Riding Therapy, not only showed that anyone, no matter if they have a disability, can compete but also that riding can be therapeutic. 

An exceptional rider is someone with a physical, social or emotional disability. 

Bradenton's Calevro is the first exceptional rider from SMART to ride competitively and will be among five exceptional riders to participate in the nonprofit’s Just Showin’ Western Dressage event Feb. 10-11.

It's a western dressage show that will donate all proceeds to SMART. It will draw dozens of competitors from around the country. 

“This show is important because it gives our western dressage riders of Florida an opportunity to show at a high level and get what they need to go after their goals and dreams,” said Mark Hiser, SMART’s executive director. “What it’s turned into is an opportunity for our exceptional riders. I want to make sure we can have other exceptional riders from other communities come over and participate.”

Becky Calevro shows off her awards from the Florida State Western Dressage Championships.
Courtesy image

The show will be Calevro’s second show since winning her silver spurs at the Florida State Western Dressage Championships Jan. 20-21 in Ocala.  

Calevro, who is 64, suffered from a brain aneurysm 10 years ago after falling off her horse. She was in a coma for three months, and afterward, she had to learn how to do basic skills such as eating, combing her hair, and other things to take care of herself. She has since struggled with depression. She also has balance and memory issues. 

She always has loved riding and had her first horse at 13 years old. She spent years barrel racing. When she had her brain aneurysm, she said her inability to ride was heartbreaking.

SMART gave her the opportunity to get back on a horse when she started therapeutic riding lessons in December. 

“It’s bringing my life back,” Calevro said. “That was my everything.”

Hiser said during Calevro’s second lesson at SMART, he saw the connection she had with the horse, Salsa Baby. He thought western dressage could be a way for her to build confidence. 

From then on, Calevro has taken a one-hour dressage lesson each week at SMART. 

Calevro said the biggest challenge in learning western dressage has been remembering the patterns she has to follow in the arena. Her memory hasn’t been the same since her aneurysm. 

Riding again has given her the opportunity to improve her balance and memory.

At the championship, Calevro competed against riders with and without disabilities, including Hiser. Her division consisted of riders whose age, combined with the age of their horse, was at least 60 years old. 

Hiser said Calevro was one of the older riders, with her age and horse Salsa Baby’s age of 25 coming to 89 years old.

Calevro said competing was a dream come true and she was in shock when she found out she won. She never imagined she would be competing and doing so successfully. 

Although she still has rough days, Calevro said the championship win has boosted her confidence in her abilities. 

Hiser said his main goal is to give exceptional riders the confidence to compete. He said Calevro overcame so many of her fears that it has helped to eliminate much of her depression.

"Now she is happy," he said. "She has something that gives her a purpose. It’s my mission to be able to give our riders the ability, the possibility, to get to another pinnacle of their life that.”

Becky Calevro, an exceptional rider with Sarasota Manatee Association for Riding Therapy, and Mark Hiser, the nonprofit's executive director, look forward to getting more exceptional riders involved with competing in western dressage.
Courtesy image

Now Calevro and Hiser are focused on the future. 

Calevro said she wants to keep improving her skills. 

Hiser wants all the exceptional riders at SMART to have the opportunity to compete. He’s thrilled to have four other riders ready to compete in the Just Showin’ Western Dressage show. 

“Whatever level they’re at, I want to give them the opportunity to show this is something they can do,” he said. “It’s all about a partnership they can create between them and their horse. I want to be able to show the western dressage community, all the communities, that exceptional riders can do it.”

Hiser said if other nonprofits focused on riding therapy want to jumpstart a competitive program for their exceptional riders, he’s more than willing to help and guide them through the process. 

Over the summer, Hiser said he plans to have 10 to 12 of SMART’s exceptional riders participate in the Western Dressage Association’s International Online World Championship. They will be able to compete in SMART’s arena. 

Calevro said her advice for other exceptional riders is to not give up and do their best. 



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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