TALES FROM THE TRAILS
Saturday, Feb. 13, offered perfect showing weather: blue sky, cool breeze, no rain. The excited group gathered under the covered Van Kampen arena at the Global Dressage Festival grounds could hardly wait to get started. The opening ceremony began at 9 a.m. with the national anthem and the Special Olympics oath, and then they were underway: tons of volunteers, along with 40 riders sharing 12 horses at the Palm Beach County Equestrian Games Special Olympics, hosted by the Vinceremos Therapeutic Riding Center.
Office manager Irma Saenz manned the sign-in desk.
“Our riders will be competing in dressage, English and western equitation, trail, and pole bending,” she explained as she handed out back numbers. “Riders compete according to their ability, and whether or not they are independent riders or need varying amounts of assistance. Some riders can walk, trot and canter with no modifications. Some can walk and trot, and some only walk, but each and every one of them is here to compete to the best of their ability.”
Irma enjoys her work with Vinceremos. “I have to say that it’s a pleasure working with these riders and this organization,” she said. “I started with Vinceremos three years ago. I came from a very different background — the mortgage industry and real estate. Vinceremos intrigued me. This is really someplace very special.”
Executive Director Ruth Menor was also on hand, making sure everything ran smoothly. She started Vinceremos in a friend’s back yard with one client and one horse, eventually moving to its current location in Loxahatchee Groves. Construction on the current stables and offices was completed in 2000. In 2012, they opened a 45,500-square-foot covered arena with stalls.
“We brought everyone who wanted to participate,” Ruth said. “The only qualification is they have to be at least 8 years old. Depending on their scores here today, they may be able to compete in the area games, which will be held here on March 26 and include riders from Martin, Broward and Palm Beach counties. That show will determine which riders move on to the state championships, and ultimately, the nationals.”
There were also some special guests on hand.
“This year, we invited five riders from Haiti to join us,” Ruth explained. “They’re all from an orphanage in Port-au-Prince and ride and practice at a nearby stable. They’re here for a week, and are really enjoying themselves. They practiced for this show with us, to get used to the area and our horses.”
Ruth hurried off to help someone, and I sat down with Romy Tschudi-Roy, who is affiliated with the Chateau Blonde Equestrian Center in Haiti where the children ride. She has been working with Haitian special-needs children for 11 years.
“We chose to bring students who were good riders, had passports and could get American visas,” she explained. “It’s not an easy task, but everyone at the American Embassy was very helpful. The children usually ride once a week, but they rode two or three times a week for the past few months to prepare for this. We’re very grateful to the many generous donors and fundraisers which made this possible.”
Karen Healy, a nurse who lives in Wellington, was one of the volunteers.
“I only started at Vinceremos a couple of weeks ago,” she said. “I wanted to help. I have a lot of horse experience, and I’ve done some teaching and worked with handicapped kids. You get an emotional connection, helping out here. This event is really well-organized. It’s a lot of work, getting everyone ready and transporting the horses.”
Cathy LePage began volunteering two years ago when her daughter, Rebecca, 11, began riding at Vinceremos. “It’s a wonderful place,” she said. “When the kids ride, it transforms them. They smile. They form a real connection with the horses. Rebecca has gained strength. She focuses better. She loves being around the horses, helping to groom and wash them, as well as riding. The whole experience has given her great confidence. When she’s on a horse, you don’t see her disability. She’s the same as any other kid.”
Tammy and David Ferrell were there from Belle Glade watching their son, 20-year-old Jeremy, ride. “He has been in the program for three years,” Tammy said. “He rides once a week. It’s wonderful. The time they take with him, he so looks forward to coming to the barn. He truly enjoys it. He rode in the Special Olympics last year, too. I’m not sure he gets the concept of showing. Mostly he thinks it’s a big parade in his honor, so he rides and blows kisses. Last year he went to the state championships, and the whole family came from Georgia to watch.”
David, who attends every practice session and show, watched Jeremy ride past. “Hold the reins,” he reminded his son, who held the reins and beamed.
Reed Gutner, 21, placed fifth in her equitation class and cheerfully showed off her blue first-place trail ribbon. “I’ve been riding at Vinceremos for six years,” she told me, very excited to be interviewed. “I like being with the horses and the people. I like all the horses except Nelly. She’s too fast and bumpy. I’m happy I won. It was a little hard to control Desi when we trotted, because the elastic came off one of the stirrups. I went to the state competitions the past three years. It’s not harder than this. I never get nervous. Never have, never will. I hope to get to the nationals one day, but I’m not there yet.”
“My daughter is amazing,” added Reed’s mother, Stacy.
To volunteer, or for more information, call (561) 792-9900, or visit www.vinceremos.org.