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Therapeutic riding center on the way

(ran South, West editions)

An equestrian center that is expected to offer therapeutic riding is in the works for the Brooker Creek Preserve, a first in the county.

The center is planned for north of Keystone Road, near the Keller well field pump station at the trail head where visitors use the 8,500-acre preserve's public trails.

County commissioners approved plans for the equestrian center in their capital improvement budget two years ago. The design and construction of the $500,000 project is allocated for this year.

"When we did our analysis of recreation needs, one of the needs was therapeutic recreation," said Pinellas County assistant administrator Jake Stowers. "Therapy recreation is a very good way for individuals with disabilities to recreate with horses. There's a relationship there that's pretty good for autistic kids."

The therapy in horseback riding is both physical and mental for the rider, said Andrea Spridgen, spokeswoman for the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association, a Denver organization that has accredited more than 700 therapeutic horse-riding programs nationwide.

Riding has a rhythm similar to walking, giving immobile people better balance, muscle strength and flexibility, Spridgen said.

Therapeutic riding has yet to be endorsed by the larger medical world, but those who support it say it can give riders more self-esteem, confidence and patience.

Hillsborough County offers therapeutic horseback riding at the Bakas Equestrian Center in Tampa.

In Pinellas, the Brooker Creek Preserve and Walsingham Park offer open trails to riders. The Brooker Creek Preserve has 13 miles of trails, which are used quite frequently, said Will Davis, director of environmental management for Pinellas County. It is uncertain whether therapeutic riders would use those trails.

At Walsingham Park in Largo, there is a members-only equestrian center maintained by the Walsingham Horse Association.

Design plans are still in the early phase for the Brooker Creek center. County administrators say the facility will have stables, fences and a corral. There is a possibility that the center could house horses available for rent, too. Construction would begin this year and is expected to take about 18 months, Stowers said.

It remains undetermined who will manage the equestrian center at Brooker Creek, or how it will be managed. But an agreement similar to the one established at Walsingham is a possibility.

"The level of interest will help direct how we put this together," Davis said. "If we have contractors interested and they say we need to link the management of the center to that of the public riding trails or we need to have a hay barn or feed barn, then we would put that together."

Nicole Johnson can be reached at njohnson@sppimes.com or (727) 445-4162.

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