Riding tall

team of 11 riders from Coconut Creek rode tall in their saddles at the Special Olympics of Florida Equestrian Championships in Ocala earlier this year. The team brought home a total 10 medals, including three golds and two silvers.

“We’re extremely proud of all of our athletes,” says Mandy DeBord, executive director of Equine-Assisted Therapies of South Florida (EATSF). “This is the largest group of riders that we’ve sent to the Special Olympics, and every one of them did an excellent job representing Broward County and our program.” 

All 11 riders came from the same EATSF program at Tradewinds Park in Coconut Creek. Marla Bowman, lead coach and program director at EATSF, and program instructor Kasey Higgins prepared the riders along with five horses: Dexter, Fire, Hallory, Lex and Sugar.

“We’re very grateful to Dr. Jerry Rudnick of the Millpond Equine Clinic, who helped us share the cost of transporting the horses to the games,” DeBord says. “We also want to share our thanks to our five volunteers who made the trip and to our riders’ parents for their invaluable help and support.”

The story goes beyond just the riders who went to the championships. “We’re a nonprofit that tries to improve the lives of people, both children and adults, through horseback riding,” says Justine Morgan, outreach coordinator at EATSF, as she shows off the equipment room filled with reins, bits and English riding saddles. “There’s the physical benefits you get through the motion of your hips, which builds your core and legs as you try to keep your balance and stay in the saddle.”

EATSF was founded in 1982 to assist in various kinds of therapies for special needs children. Starting with only six children and six borrowed horses, it has since grown into a vibrant program that assists the needs of over 118 children and adult riders and 11 horses. They currently reside on 2.5 acres in the north part of Tradewinds Park thanks to the county allowing them to use and occupy the land. The organization will continue to grow with an additional 3 acres given by Broward County Parks and Recreation.

The therapies extend beyond just those designed for individuals with physical needs to those with mental and social ones through four programs: Therapeutic Riding, Hippotherapy, Equine-Facilitated Learning and Equine-Facilitated Psychotherapy, which includes a Wounded Warrior Program. The interaction with the horses is a mutual one where the horse responds to the rider’s emotional and mental state. If the rider isn’t focused, the horse tends not to be either.

Andrea Kessler, mother of Special Olympic riders Shelby and Payge, fully believes in the program and has seen great improvements with both of her girls. Shelby started as a volunteer who had ADHD. 

“Thanks to the program, Shelby is no longer on medication [for her ADHD]. She moved up quickly through the program and now she is very self-aware and has a 3.97 GPA,” Kessler shares. “Payge, after a year, already shows a lot of progress. She’s so much more confident and we’re seeing her grades improve, too.”

The organization needs just as much help as they give. Morgan says the real trick is balancing costs between maintaining the facilities, feeding and keeping the horses healthy, and being able to constantly expand to meet the needs the community. She stresses the importance of fundraisers such as the upcoming Horseshoe Hoedown in October.

“We are very dependent on our donors,” Morgan says. “We have some horses donated to us and others that are on long-term ‘lease,’ where we maintain the care and boarding of the horse in exchange for having them available for our program. We appreciate everything we get, from the land to the feed, equipment and more. We really depend on the community to keep us thriving.” ?


For more information on the Equine-Assisted Therapies of South Florida and how you can help, contact Justine Morgan at 954.974.2007 or visit equineatsf.org.



Riders and the recognition they received in their respective classes based on riding skill:

Trent Alber, 18, Boca Raton:
Third place (bronze medal) in equitation, fifth place in trail pattern

David Cochran, 25, Tamarac:
Third place (bronze medal) in equitation, fifth place in trail pattern

Josephine Crank, 10, Margate:
Third place (bronze medal) in equitation, fifth place in trail pattern

Cassidy Giordanella, 20, Parkland:
First place (gold medal) in trail pattern, fourth place in equitation

Mariah Harris, 16, Fort Lauderdale:
Third place (bronze medal) in equitation, fourth place in trail pattern

Shelby Kessler, 17, Coral Springs:
Third place (bronze medal) in equitation, fourth place in trail pattern

Payge Kessler, 12, Coral Springs:
First place (gold medal) in equitation, second place (silver medal) in trail pattern 

Cynthia Patrice, 21, Davie:
Fifth place in trail pattern, fifth place in equitation

Katie Ramaglia, 12, Coconut Creek:
Fourth place in trail pattern, fourth place in equitation

Alejandro Viso, 19, Pompano Beach:
Second place (silver medal) in equitation, fourth place in trail pattern


Hannah Woods, 17, Boynton Beach:
First place (gold medal) in dressage test, fifth place in equitation

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