Horses are among the most beautiful creatures on this earth, however they are also quite huge and extremely powerful. They all have different personalities, just like people. It takes a keen sense of awareness as well as great concentration to take control of of a horse and compete in the ring. The 15th Equine Event for Special Olympics will feature remarkable young adults who love to ride and are very comfortable being high in the saddle. The event was conceived by local businessman, Lenwood “Lenny” Sawyer, who seventeen years ago added a stable to his country estate on Country Farm Road in Gulfport. His dream was to give back to the community through his horses. He decided to begin a Special Olympic riding program for South Mississippi residents. Sawyer asked his good friend and trusted employee, Pete Crane, to help him implement his idea. Pete was well versed in working with horses. It was agreed that they would work together and give it a try. In 1996 everything was established and ready to go. Pete Crane is the Equine Director for the Mississippi Special Olympics Area 3. Area 3 consists of Harrison, Stone, Hancock, Pearl counties.
A key individual in the development of the Special Olympics Riding Program is Cheryl York. As an educator, she had a great deal of experience in working with special ed children. As the barn was being constructed, she and Sawyer formulated a game plan. Earline Sawyer, Lenny’s wife, eagerly joined in and became a very active participant as well. When the stables were finished, and the horses moved in, Cheryl began bringing “special” guests to visit and get acquainted with the animals. In no time volunteers were joining the project, offering to help with everything from caring for the horses to working with the student riders. Horses are provided for each student and during competitions they wear whatever they like. Boots are encouraged so that they have a firm grip in the stirrups, and many love to add a customary cowboy hat while riding in the arena. It is a strict and never relaxed rule that all riders wear helmets when they mount their horses.
In the beginning, there were six youngsters taking part in the program; three girls and three boys. American Quarter horses are the animals of choice because they are quite gentle, and easy to work with. A magnificent Palomino mare named Goldie was the first horse selected. Two of the girls had ridden before, but the boys and one of the girls had no experience whatsoever. It took quite awhile to calm their fears and get them comfortable on Goldie, but the young lady decided it was not her cup of tea and chose to leave the program. Another girl later joined the group though, and by the time the group competed in the first event, there were six riders once again. The little group was taken upstate to a small competition in order to get their feet wet, and they had a wonderful time.
Practice sessions are usually held a couple times a week, in the afternoons. There is a Spring session and a Fall session each year. Weather permitting, training begins mid March. The weekend before Memorial Day is the regional competition. During the heat of the summer, there is a break because it allows for vacation time and it is just too hot to ride. The week after Labor Day, the Fall session begins. The riders are expected to attend ten practice sessions to qualify for competitions. “We don’t worry about that though…one look in their eyes and you can’t tell them they didn’t make it,” Pete said. Next, they have to compete in Equine events for three years running in order to participate in the ultimate Special Olympics event called the Royal. It is quite grand with all the pomp and circumstance of the regular Olympic games. It happens once every four years.
There are two events in the upcoming Special Olympics; on Friday evening, November 18th, the Trails or Western Trails competition takes place, and the Stock Seat Equitation will be held on Saturday, November 19th. In order not to “spook” the horses during the competition, there is no clapping allowed but the riders are recognized silently with outstretched open hands waving through the audience. In the state competition, the prizes are gold, silver and bronze medals. In regional’s, the winners are awarded ribbons in blue, red and yellow. “Some of the kids can ride as well as I can on a trail! Others need the added assurance of someone with them because they have very short attention spans and need a leader. Over the years through experience we have learned the best way to work with the needs of the individual rider, and we can usually figure things out. They beam with confidence and melt your heart,” Pete said.
Many of the people that ride, also compete in other Special Olympic events! They bowl, swim, play soft ball, skate and square dance, to name a few. They certainly are not shy and jump into every event with wild abandon. “They love to win, but when they don’t, they are so loving and so supportive of one another,” Pete said. There will be 27 riders from Pete Crane’s class entering the November Equine Special Olympics.