BROOKSVILLE — On a sunny spring morning, Robah Beck sits tall in the saddle as he slowly guides a 17-year-old draft horse named Heidi around the arena. As the horse's hooves plod through the soft soil, all eyes are on them as they maneuver through a tight obstacle course.
After completing the exercise, the 20-year-old rider gets an enthusiastic round of applause from his fellow equestrians who ring the fence at Arc Nature Coast's equestrian facility.
Though he has been riding just over a year, Beck has developed a confident command of the animal and shows it by putting Heidi through a maneuver known as "working trails," an event in which he is competing this weekend at the state Special Olympics Equestrian Championships.
Theresa Smith, who has directed Arc's POSSE (Promoting Opportunities and Skills for Special Equestrians) program for the past five years, gushes with praise for her student.
"Robah is one of our stars," Smith said as she watched her student lead the horse from the arena.
Seven POSSE members were invited to this weekend's equestrian competition, which concludes today at the Florida State Fairgrounds in Tampa. It is the highest number of clients that Arc has ever sponsored at the state games, and Smith believes that speaks well to the quality of the program that began in 2004 as the BRICKS (Building Riders' Independence, Confidence, Knowledge and Success) program.
Smith, an accredited therapeutic riding instructor, said the program has grown substantially since its early days. Currently, there 25 members, ages 19 through 62, all with varying physical or developmental disabilities, who spend weekdays training at the Arc arena near the back of the facility on Neff Lake Road.
The POSSE program focuses on North American Riding for the Handicapped Association-approved disciplines such as equitation, showmanship and trailing. Arc's facility is one of just 11 premier NARHA centers in Florida.
Most of Smith's pupils had never been around horses before they joined POSSE. And more than a few were timid when it came to being around 900-pound animals.
"It can be intimidating at first to some of our customers," Smith related. "What we do is here isn't a pony ride. Horses, even docile ones like ours, can be temperamental and unpredictable and building the confidence to ride takes time. Sometimes, it never comes."
Smith has many success stories to tell. Clifford Nehr is one of them.
After just seven months in the program, Nehr, 46, earned an invitation to the state Special Olympics by snaring top honors in the walk-trot trails category at the Tampa regional games in April.
Nehr said there was a time when he swore he'd never climb atop a horse.
"I was very afraid that I'd get hurt," Nehr said. "I was afraid to even touch a horse."
Smith explained that fear is perhaps the greatest obstacle for her novice riders. That's why everyone in POSSE starts out in raw equestrian basics — cleaning stalls and feeding the four horses that Arc owns. In time, most clients outgrow their feelings of intimidation.
"Little by little they gain confidence in themselves," Smith said. "Often, teaching them how to ride or show a horse is the easy part."
Smith said her experience working in the program has revealed more than just its value in developing cognitive function in the developmentally disabled. It also gives participants a sense of empowerment.
"To our riders, horses offer a connection to a world that never existed before," Smith said. "It's give and take with the animal. And for someone whose body or mind doesn't always do what they want it do, it's a huge emotional uplift."
Arc program director Gerald Siegel said Arc committed itself to POSSE because it offered clients benefits and recognition they would probably not get elsewhere.
"Our customers have the self-esteem of being in a program that is recognized as one of the best in the state," Siegel said. Indeed, Arc has the greatest number of participants of the eight equestrian teams competing at this year's state Special Olympics.
Siegel admits that Arc's long-term vision to expand POSSE is tempered by the nonprofit organization's financial constraints. The program receives no outside funding other than donations.
Smith said she and her volunteer staff have gotten good at making less do more. She rarely turns down an offer of generosity.
"The community has been amazing to us," Smith said. "It seems like whenever we've been in need, there's someone out there willing to help us out."
When Arc needed a barn, several community groups chipped in $20,000 and the labor to build one. In addition to the four horses used in the program, people have donated tack, supplies, even a horse trailer.
Smith said her greatest on-going need is volunteers with equestrian experience to help with training exercises and to assist some participants in the arena during events.
"Volunteers are our backbone," she said. "Without them we've got nothing."
Logan Neill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1435.