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Special Olympics Polk Equestrian Team is born

Charlotte Sun - 2/7/2018

Take a love for horses and a love for kids with special challenges, mix it into a wonderful day full of smiles and surprises, and that would be a good description of last weekend’s first ever Special Olympics Polk County Equestrian Team competition.

Riders, horses, families and volunteers turned out at the Rockin W Ranch in Winter Haven, owned by Kathy Grinstead and Dennis Dudley, her husband.

Grinstead says the idea came to them and members of the Florida Sportsman’s Club a couple of years ago, when one of her friends, Beth Kingham’s son, Jackson, started riding at the ranch.

Jackson has Down’s Syndrome, she says.

About that time, a Kiwanis Club made a contact through the Florida Sport Horse Club that they belong to about doing “days without disabilities,” a day where children who have special challenges can do things that other kids do.

As Grinstead says, “We fell in love with it.”

Danielle Bilbrey says that from there, they met with several others who practiced riding at the ranch, and pulled together a team.

Twelve athletes comprise the team. Seven meet on Thursday nights, five on Sunday nights, and they meet twice a month for an hour or two.

Each rider belongs to a three person team, with the goal of them learning to ride independently at some point.

“We have been prepared, the volunteers are wonderful,” says Bilbrey.

“Per horse, we have a three person team. We have a handler, which controls the horse. We have a designated sidewalker, which is like the main person for the rider to look up to, and an additional sidewalker. Some have three full support, some have two, some, more independent. Our goal is to make them independent riders.”

Only two of the riders have had experience with horses before the team was formed.

Parent Tim Sansom said of his daughter, Molly, “We are fortunate that she was able to do this,” noting riding is her favorite activity.

“She’s excited about this. She’s always asking when is she going to ride again.”

The athletes’ families purchased their own boots and helmets, about $150 to $200 per rider total. And so far, the team has not been asked to pay any more than that individually, so donors are needed.

The goal is to raise about $6000 each season to cover horse expenses (feed, farrier, vet, etc.) equipment, tack, and travel. The team is only about a quarter of the way there for this show season. Donations to Special Olympics are tax deductible and can be designated for the Equestrian Team.

Monti Sommer is the new Polk County Director of Special Olympics and was on hand to kick off the horse show.

“We are grateful to Kathy Grinstead and Dennis Dudley for the generous donation of their time, expertise, wonderful horses,

tack and facilities,” said Sommer. Bilbrey also was recognized for her contribution in putting the team together.

Training season is from September through February. “All total our wonderful volunteers have contributed over 900 volunteer hours to train this team of 12 riders,”Grinstead said, adding that as they launched their first year of equestrian training, they had modest ambitions.

“We initially had two (owners of) Polk County barns willing to train, but we did not know how many athletes would sign up and we did not know how we could match a horse to everyone who is signed up. Well as we matched the horses and schedule availability and athletes, we arrived at the 12 riders who will compete here today who did all of their training here at Rockin W Ranch.”

Opening ceremony included the National Anthem, salute to the flag, the running of the Olympian torch, then the Special Olympics Athletes Oath.

As her dad stood nearby taking pictures, Molly Sansom lead the oath.

“Let me win. But, if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt,”? she said.

Dad took a photo.

“May the games begin! Riders, report to your horses,” said Sommer.

Volunteer judges were Buddy and Brie Putnam, local ranchers.

Riders competed in Showmanship, Barrels, Poles, Stock Seat Equitation, Trail and more.

Numerous people and entities donated to help make the day successful.

Athletes will compete again at the Area Games in Tampa on Friday, Feb. 16 and Saturday, Feb. 17.

Volunteer registration for next season will open the end of July /beginning of August on the Special Olympics Polk County Equestrian webpage,

Athlete registration will open at the same time.

All sport registrations will be announced on the Special Olympics Polk County FB page.


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