SEMINOLE — Mary Urquhart was at the barn before sunrise. Getting up early to feed the horses is nothing unusual for the 80-year-old, but Saturday was special.
Twenty-three disabled athletes were due by 8:30 for the Special Olympics Florida Area 6 Equestrian Competition.
As the event got under way, sunlight filtered through the pines, lighting athletes' faces as they stepped or were helped into the saddle.
Riders' disabilities and abilities dictate whether they need a person called a side-walker to walk alongside the horse to keep riders safely in the saddle. Some riders lack muscle control. One was blind.
Each horse also is led by a horse handler, usually a young volunteer from 4-H, Girl Scouts or local high schools.
According to Urquhart, director of the Pinellas Kiwanis Horses for Handicapped riding program, handlers must not interfere with the directions given by the rider.
Jenny Mazgaj understands what goes on behind the scenes with the horses. She helps Urquhart daily at the barn, writes the group's newsletter, maintains the website and sits on the board.
"I'm here as a support team for my two disabled daughters, Nina and Katie," said Mazgaj, of Seminole. "The twins have participated as disabled riders since 2005."
Riders were judged on equitation (riding style), postures and control of the horse as they walked around a riding ring. Then it was on to an obstacle trail with eight challenges, including barrel jumping for more independent riders.
The regional leads to the state competition at the State Fairgrounds in May.
"We sent eight riders last year,'' Urquhart said. This year's number won't be decided until slots are allotted according to a lottery in a few weeks.
St. Petersburg resident Steve Colbert's daughter, Madeline, won in equitation and was second in trail.
"We've seen such a great improvement in her strength and balance," Colbert said. "She thrives on the horses and the therapy."
Ryan Feeley, 16, waited to compete in pole bending, where horse and rider weave in and around set poles.
"When he started 12 years ago, his feet couldn't reach the stirrups," said his mother, Carol. "Now he'll ride independently. The program's gotten him past his sensory integration issues. It used to be he couldn't walk on shiny floors or enter elevators. He thought he'd fall through the cracks."
Equine therapy has been proven to help with sensory, motor, physical and neurological issues.
John and Margo Evans of Clearwater smiled as their son Chris held tightly to his blue ribbons.
"One of the hardest parts (of the competition) is removing an object from the mailbox and riding over to put it in another," said Urquhart. "That and placing rings on poles. In both they have to control their hands and get the horse close."
Urquhart has overseen three Special Olympics regional competitions, but has directed the Kiwanis Horses for Handicapped program since its inception more than 32 years ago. It is Pinellas County's oldest free riding program for disabled adults and children.
The Special Olympics regional competition brought athletes from as far away as Sumter County.
"I personally find this one impressive event — watching how our athletes not only conduct themselves while riding, but watching how they handle the horses," said David R. Haines, county coordinator for Special Olympics-Pinellas County. "This is such a different sport as opposed to, say, soccer or basketball, because there is so much more to be aware of when you place our athletes on top of 2,000-plus pounds of animal."
"This is a big event for all of us," Mazgaj said. "We prepare our riders all year long, training them to be comfortable first by brushing a horse. ... They learn how to work with a horse and ride."
Saturday, as she has in the past, Urquhart watched the fruits of her and so many volunteers' labor blossom as riders mounted horses, stronger and more confident than when they brushed their first pony.
"Just to see the transformation in my son is amazing," Dan Feeley said. "When Ryan got here he couldn't get on a pony. Now he rides with no lead walker. All by himself. He's more confident. This program and competition make kids proud."