TAMPA — Robert Moore never gets nervous. Not when he's on a horse.
There, he has control of the world.
"It's very therapeutic to me," the 17-year-old Brooksville resident said. "The horses have helped me so much."
Moore was one of nearly 100 riders who competed in the Florida Special Olympic Equestrian Championships held this weekend at the State Fairgrounds. The annual event was hosted by the Hillsborough County Bakas Equestrian Center, which teaches physically and mentally challenged children and adults how to ride horses.
Competition included dressage, English and Western equitation, trail class, drill team, showmanship and speed events. Riders from around the state came to Tampa for the chance to compete with the best.
Moore considers himself one of them. After 11 years of training with the Bakas Center, he's won 20 gold medals. On Saturday, he added one more to his collection, along with a silver.
As one of the older students, he also helps to mentor younger riders in his areas of expertise — pole and barrel racing.
"My friend Justin told me that he wants to be just like me," Moore said. "I couldn't believe it."
While watching Saturday's competition, Roberto and Jacqueline Moore said the program has given their son more than they ever expected. In the distance, they pointed to him walking around in a tan leather vest and cowboy hat, talking to friends.
As a baby, he had a hard time sitting up. When he finally learned to walk, he usually lost his balance. Learning how to talk was a process, too.
But when his father put him on the back of a horse at the age of 5, he noticed how his son naturally took to the animal.
Not long after that, they discovered the Bakas program. The weekly sessions helped their son work through his balance issues and helped him get stronger.
The socializing led to more friends and higher self-esteem.
More than anything, it's fun for everyone, said Clearwater parent Jean Charles Faust.
His daughter, 17-year-old Julia, has been a part of the Bakas program for the past three years.
"Julia loves to be around horses, and here, she's happy to meet with her friends and enjoy what she loves," he said. "And if she's happy, I'm happy."
Pleased with his performance Saturday, Moore said that he'll never forget what horses have done for him.
"I couldn't have done it without them," he said.
Chandra Broadwater can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 661-2454.