Taking the Reins

Taking the Reins

Polk County’s Special Olympics Equestrian Team Builds More Than Skill

by PAUL CATALA

When Angel Woessner first approached the horses in the stable about two years ago, she was nervous and cautious.

But since that first day at Bartow’s Rockin’ W Ranch, Woessner has won more than 50 medals and trophies, has grown accustomed to horseback riding and has become a competitive equine rider.

Woessner, 18, is one of about 25 members of the Polk County Special Olympics Equestrian Team who has learned or is learning the fundamentals of competitive horseback riding. But in addition to getting a grasp on the reins of skill, she’s also building her character, confidence, social skills and — more importantly – a range of new friends.

Formed in 2017, the Equestrian Team is made up of members from across Polk County, with different mental and physical disabilities, ranging in ages from 12 years old to those in their mid-50s. The team has doubled in size since its formation.

The team was formed by Rockin’ W Ranch owner Kathy Grinstead, a Horsemanship Safety Association Certified Instructor, and the season runs annually from October to March. Included in the season are county, area and state competitions.

After some horse grooming during a team practice on a hot early afternoon at the 12-acre ranch off State Road 60, it’s time to get down to business. With a little help mounting Bud, a 22-year-old paint horse, Woessner rides into the arena. Her mother, Marian Ayala, and Rockin’ W Barn Managers and Equestrian Team Coaches Pamela Denton and Erica Curtis guide the horse. Then Woessner rides solo through a few obstacles before being led out of the training arena and is helped down off Bud.

“I just like grooming the horses, and I like petting ‘Dina’ (the barn cat),” says Woessner, who has Down Syndrome. “It’s fun because I get to ride the horses and wash them. I get gold medals and silver medals.”

Ayala says since her daughter joined the Polk County Special Olympics Equestrian Team, she has warmed up pretty quickly to the horses and riding them.

“It’s allowed her to make lots of friends, we get to travel and it’s great for her character, confidence and socializing,” says Ayala, a basketball, track and field, bocci ball and cheerleading coach. “It’s also helped with some behavioral issues she had before beginning to ride.”

After the horses have been put back into the stable and the dust settles, Denton and Curtis wait at a table for the next riders to come in. 

Denton, who’s been riding for about 10 years, began working at Rockin’ W two years ago and is in her second year coaching the team. She says Equestrian Team members start out learning showmanship skills with the horses before beginning to ride, going through “groundwork” classes, which include walking, trotting, backing up, pivoting and going through patterns.

In addition to Denton and Curtis, Rockin’ W coaches and trainers Kimberly Williams, Myah Kane, Brooke Harrison and Grinstead help train and coach riders. 

Once a team member is accustomed to grooming, feeding and maintaining the horses, they begin more skilled riding while deriving offshoot benefits.

“I think it helps a lot with emotional intelligence and communication and teamwork, as well as learning to bond with others – not just teammates, but the horses,” says Curtis, who lives in Winter Haven. “The horses are therapists for them. Just being around the horses takes stress away.”

At Rockin’ W, about 18 horses are boarded, with seven of them used by the Equestrian Team for competitions. Among those events, Special Olympic athlete riders compete in equitation and on-trail courses, opening mailboxes, weaving out of standing poles, going over bridges, doing figure eights and guiding horses through styrofoam noodle obstacles.

All team members from Rockin’ W Ranch’s event go to the county and area competitions, and a point system determines who goes to the state meet, which for 2021 was held April 9 and 10 at the World Equestrian Center in Ocala. 

In addition to the Rockin’ W team, now in its fourth year of competition, three riding teams from Pine Creek Ranch, Bartow, have joined Rockin’ W’s Polk County Special Olympics Equine Team in competitions.

Grinstead, a horseback rider since she was a child, says she’s amazed about how successful the equine team has become in a short time. She says the team gives members a “sense of camaraderie, responsibility and cooperative interaction with the team and the horses.”

“It takes a lot of courage to approach and work with a 1,000-pound animal. They’re grooming, saddling and riding them and learning leadership skills,” says Grinstead, who lives in Bartow and taught in the public school system for 30 years. 

“It gives them an opportunity to be on an equal level with other athletes by competing on the horse; it gives them a stronger sense of self-sufficiency.”

Besides the Equine Team, Rockin’ W Ranch sponsors “A Heart for Horses Empowering Riders and Others (HEROES),” a nonprofit initiative that raises money for Special Olympics activities and horse care and feeding. 

Internationally, equestrian sports were established at the Special Olympics in 1987, according to the Special Olympics Resources guide. In competitions, riders choose either English or Western tack and enter the appropriate classes. The riders are judged on position, and their ability to influence the horse is the basis for determining divisions. 

Included in the Special Olympics equestrian sports are competitions in Dressage, Prix Caprilli, English Equitation, Stock Seat Equitation, and Western Riding. At Special Olympics, no records are kept and all athletes receive an award, from gold, silver and bronze medals to fourth- through eighth-place ribbons.