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Meet the 89-year-old horse whisperer for Pinellas program

Mary “Snakey” Urquhart says horses make disabled people – and everyone else – appreciate the world.
Mary “Snakey” Urquhart stands with Friday, one of the horses of the Horses for Handicapped Foundation of Pinellas County. Photo by Philip Morgan
Mary “Snakey” Urquhart stands with Friday, one of the horses of the Horses for Handicapped Foundation of Pinellas County. Photo by Philip Morgan [ Photo by Philip Morgan) ]
Published Nov. 6

Times Correspondent

Mary “Snakey” Urquhart has run the Horses for Handicapped Foundation of Pinellas County since 1981. The program offers recreational horseback riding for children and adults with such disabilities as autism spectrum disorder, cerebral palsy and post-traumatic stress disorder. “It gives them the physical exercise that they don’t want to do,’’ says Urquhart, a retired teacher who turns 89 this month. The program was started by Gene and Pat Harris of Largo through the Kiwanis Club of Seminole and its foundation. It relies solely on donations.

Jane Savitski is a volunteer, but she also rides for therapy. She has multiple sclerosis. “It works on my strength, endurance and balance,’’ she says. “I was using a cane and now I don’t usually use a cane.’’

The program needs volunteers, but Urquhart asks that they be fully vaccinated for COVID-19, wear a mask and follow other safety protocols.

During her morning ritual of feeding the foundation’s eight horses, Urquhart talked with the Tampa Bay Times.

What does horseback riding do for people?

Just (gives) an appreciation for the world. I mean you can take a little one that’s autistic and running around, just doesn’t seem to know what to do. … He gets up on a horse, everything goes quiet. He sits up there proud and happy and looks around, and the world is at peace.

When is the program held?

The handicapped riding program (part) of it is Saturday mornings from 8 to noon. And we have special assigned positions and we’re very full so far. We have a waiting list. …

During the week after school, when the kids (volunteers) get out of their respective schools, they come and they clean stalls and they groom the horses.

… They earn the privilege of learning to ride. They take lessons, and we will take them to a horse show, too.

Mary "Snakey" Urquhart, left, collects saddles and tack with volunteer Meghan Harry, of Largo, before attending a recreational horse riding lesson at Horses for Handicapped Foundation of Pinellas County in Seminole. [TIMES 2020]
Mary "Snakey" Urquhart, left, collects saddles and tack with volunteer Meghan Harry, of Largo, before attending a recreational horse riding lesson at Horses for Handicapped Foundation of Pinellas County in Seminole. [TIMES 2020] [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Horses are fascinating animals. In past interviews, you’ve passed on a quote attributed to Winston Churchill.

“The outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man.”… You can be all tense and all upset and everything and you come out, start working with a horse and start loving the horse, and everything calms down, everything becomes quiet. And you can reason again.

Horses have different personalities, don’t they? What kind do you look for?

They have different personalities, different gaits, different ways that they move. But we want one that is very level-headed and quiet, very calm in demeanor, that likes to work with kids.

How do you judge that?

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We go and interview the horse. We do. You just go to where they are, there at the rescue or whatever, and just approach the horse, talk to them, (see) if they let you touch them or pet them, lead them around, whatever. Just look them over to see how they react to their surroundings and everything else.

What is the secret to learning how to ride a horse?

Our girls and boys start out bareback, so that they learn how the horse moves underneath them, so they feel comfortable up there. That’s the bottom line. If you’re in a saddle a lot of the time, you think you have to depend on the saddle. It may or may not fit your particular bottom, so it may be quite uncomfortable. But bareback, I think you learn the basic balance, you learn not to be afraid and you just enjoy yourself.

You got your daughter a horse long before the program began and used the horse to train 4-H Club members and Girl Scouts how to care for horses and ride them. Did you have a horse growing up?

Yeah, when I was a kid my dad convinced Mother that he needed a horse to keep the team of mules in the barnyard (in Farmington, Mo.). I don’t know how he swung that, but yes, I had a good old mare that I shared with the family. (A horse kicks the stall door several times.) … That is Dexter, down yonder. He’s saying, “Feed me first! … I’m the prettiest. Feed me!”

How did you get the nickname Snakey?

Do not hurt my snakes (her mantra to volunteers). They keep the rats out of the barn and the rats are detrimental. They carry germs to us, they carry diseases to the horses. There’s our (wall) chart that the kids have to learn, the rattlesnakes and the coral snake. …

If they find a snake, they have to tell me before they approach it. ...

When I first started in Girl Scouts with my daughter, you had to have a Girl Scout handle. You had to have a nickname, so the kids don’t always have to go around calling you Mrs. Urquhart like you have to do in school. Because I would pick up the snakes and say this is a black racer, or say this is a nice little corn snake, or I may have one in my pocket, who knows? So I got that handle. … Nobody knows me by Mary. They know me by Snakey.

For four decades Mary "Snakey" Urquhart has run the Horses for Handicapped Foundation of Pinellas County, providing recreational horseback riding for disabled children and adults. [ TIMES 2020]
For four decades Mary "Snakey" Urquhart has run the Horses for Handicapped Foundation of Pinellas County, providing recreational horseback riding for disabled children and adults. [ TIMES 2020] [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Is this still fun?

Oh, yeah, I still enjoy it. I get up and do it every morning.

Does it keep you healthy?

I would say so. I’m still here.

Do you still ride?

I can if I have time. But if there’s time, that’s a big question.

For more information, go to www.pinellashforh.org.