Jacksonville, FL (February 23, 2017) — Equestrians with disabilities from seven of Florida’s northeastern counties will gather at the Jacksonville Equestrian Center to compete in the first-ever Special Olympics Florida Area 5 Equestrian Games on Sunday, February 26, from 2:00pm – 5:00pm. The Area 5 games are a qualifier for the Florida State Special Olympics Equestrian Championships. The Special Olympics provides sports training and competition opportunities to athletes with intellectual disabilities around the world.
“We are very excited to have the games at the Jacksonville Equestrian Center,” said Carrie Damato, coordinator and coach of the Area 5 Equestrian Games. “This is the perfect facility to host an event for riders with special needs. It already has a wheelchair-accessible ramp and parking that is easily accessible to chairs and motorized scooters. The facility is also easy to get to and is laid out very well.”
Damato’s team is expecting a crowd of over 150 at the Jacksonville, Florida facility, as 15 to 20 riders will compete in a variety of divisions with the help of staff and volunteers and the cheering of spectators. The event is open to the public to watch, and will be located in the open field to the North side of the Equestrian Center. Spectators can bring a lawn chair or sit in the bleachers by the field. “We have a fantastic lineup of classes, including both English and Western Equitation, in which the rider is judged on how well they control the horse, and a trail competition or obstacle course, which is a huge event with the Special Olympics,” explained Damato.
The Special Olympics Area 5 Equestrian Games are open to all ages of riders with any degree of disability. Riders will compete in divisions based on the number of side walkers they utilize, from zero assistance to up to two side walkers. The goal for competitors at the Area 5 Games is to qualify for the Florida State Special Olympics Equestrian Championships, where they will represent Northeast Florida to the best of their ability.
The Area 5 competitors have been training all year with their own coaches and horses, which are typically provided by facilities that have been certified through the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH Intl.). Commonly, the equestrians’ most demanding training is for the trail class, a perennial favorite at the Equestrian Games.
“When we do trail classes, we have about 50 different obstacles we can choose from,” explained Damato. “The riders have to know how to navigate each of these obstacles – be it a figure-eight, a turn, a bridge, or poles – and they have to stop, back up, and turn. So they work on their core, their hands, their coordination – it is not easy for anyone. To see these riders be able to focus like that is absolutely amazing.”
As with all equestrian sports, being paired with the right horse is essential to creating a rewarding experience in equine-assisted therapy and an outstanding performance in the Special Olympics show ring. For the past year, Damato has been assisting Perry Hopper, a teacher for students with special needs and a Special Olympics coach, in training his Gypsy Vanner gelding LexLin’s Black Jack of Dynasty to be a Special Olympics horse. Last year, LexLin’s Black Jack of Dynasty, or “B.J.” helped his riders to Gold, Silver and Bronze medals at the Florida State Special Olympics. Damato’s team hopes to send him as a delegate to the state games again this year to defend the titles.
“Gypsy Vanners have been bred for centuries to be calm and very laid back, not easily spooked, and they have an amazing connection with kids,” Damato explained. “BJ is a great ambassador for the breed as far as looks, personality, and being able to handle whatever we throw at him.”
For Damato, this connection between humans and horses is both inspiration and reward for her devotion to the Special Olympics and equine-assisted therapy. “Some of the very first art depictions on caves in France were of horses,” she said. “There is just something magical about them, and it doesn’t matter if you can see, talk, or walk — they are just naturally drawn to people, and us to them. Horses give us everything they have, and they never tell us no, they just want to be with people. To be able to cultivate a relationship like that and to be able to share it with these kids and the people that come to watch is simply amazing. You’re communicating with an animal that doesn’t speak your language, and that translates to other people — just because you can’t speak their language doesn’t mean that you cannot communicate.”
The Jacksonville Equestrian Center is thrilled to be hosting the Special Olympics Area 5 Equestrian Games and wishes all of the competitors the best of luck in their performances. The Jacksonville Equestrian Center is home to a state-of-the-art 123,000 square foot indoor coliseum, multiple outdoor arenas, barns with over 400 stalls, and trails for equestrians to enjoy. The 80-acre facility is also part of a recreational park that features an Olympic size indoor pool, an 18-hole golf course, and regulation softball fields.
Located just off of I-95 in Jacksonville, Florida, the Jacksonville Equestrian Center hosts recreational, sporting, and community events year round. For more information about the facility, visit www.jaxequestriancenter.com or call 904-255-4215.
Photo: The Jacksonville Equestrian Center will host the Special Olympics Florida Area 5 Equestrian Games on Sunday, February 26, from 2:00pm – 5:00pm (Photos courtesy of Dark Horse Arena)