SEMINOLE — The woman in the flannel shirt drove the John Deere compact tractor back to the shed as three middle school girls came through the front gate. Mary Urquhart, “Snakey” to her friends, had smoothed out the riding ring with the tractor.
Now it was time for the girls — Urquhart’s team of volunteers — to get to work. After putting their phones and backpacks in a storage area, they swiftly mucked out stalls and served up hay. Before long, they had groomed three horses, tacked them up and were trotting around the ring.
Although the work is spread between a 10-member volunteer board of directors, Urquhart, 87, is recognized as the force behind the Horses for Handicapped Foundation of Pinellas County. The contributions of her volunteers, from local organizations like 4-H and the Girl Scouts, are also an integral to the stable’s success.
In the center of the Sunshine State’s most densely populated county and with limited funding, Horses for Handicapped has survived 39 years, serving the needs of hundreds of riders. With nine carefully selected horses, the program provides recreational horseback riding for disabled children and adults.
Among the participants are riders with autism, post-traumatic stress disorder and cerebral palsy. On most Thursdays and Saturdays, visitors can spot Urquhart in the center of the ring, as riders climb atop the horses, some assisted by volunteers who serve as "side walkers,'' and move through the ABCs of horseback riding, while taking in fresh air and benefiting from the physical activity.
Urquhart, a retired Largo Middle School science teacher and a force within Pinellas County’s horse community, has raised multiple generations of well-trained equestrians who attained their knowledge with the understanding: learn how to do it and then you’ll get to ride the horse. "We are also a please and thank you barn,'' Urquhart said.
And to Urquhart, the key to the program’s success is simply: "the horses.''
"Everyone is here because of the horses. The love of the horses is the secret,'' she said. "I like to use the quote, ‘There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.’ I think Winston Churchill said it.''
It was back in 1981, when Gene Harris, a founding member of the Seminole Kiwanis Club, who had learned of a similar program in South Florida, approached Urquhart — already known for her involvement in a Seminole 4H/Girl Scout riding club. He told her he needed her horse expertise. "I was immediately hooked,'' Urquhart said.
In the early days, in order to hold the classes, the group had to transport horses from individual barns to a ring at the Seminole Technical Education Center (now Richard O. Jacobson Technical High School). It wasn’t until 2007 that the organization began leasing three acres from Pinellas County, next to the Walsingham Horseman Association’s Park off 102nd Avenue.
Now, 13 years later, Horses for Handicapped has an annual operating budget of $65,000 and runs solely on donations.
The program relies on a mix of donated horses as well as rescued ones. Although most horses have been in the program for more than a decade, there have been instances when the group has lost a horse. In December, the group lost Hagrid, a Belgian-thoroughbred. The 17-year-old horse had developed colic and died while recuperating from surgery.
Jocelyn Frohnerath is an 11-year-old 4-H volunteer. She volunteered with the Saturday class the weekend Hagrid died.
"We all were very quiet that day, but we knew we had to get through the Saturday classes,'' she said. ”To me, Hagrid was a big love bug who never hurt anyone, and I remember all I heard Mary say all day was, ‘Hug your horse. He’s a gift from God.’''
Carol and Dan Feeley, are the parents of Ryan Feeley, who has autism. He has been in the program since he was 4. Now 24, he is a frequent winner in Special Olympics equestrian competitions.
"Although he didn’t ride Hagrid often, it was hard to tell him the news he died.'' Carol Feeley said. "We have seen this before, and what you need to remember is when you have someone with special needs, with autism, they are used to doing things a certain way and have difficulty with change. So switching out when they ride a particular horse is difficult.''
Feeley also stressed the importance of the program to her son. "When he first would get on a horse, he was fearful, but now, climbing onto a horse makes him so happy,'' she said. "And what it does, it is hard to put it into words, but it is a connection. You can see the connection Ryan has right when he gets in the saddle.''
The Horses for Handicapped Foundation of Pinellas County runs solely on donations. It is a program designed to provide recreational horseback riding to the special needs citizens in the area. There is a waiting list to join the program. However, there are many ways to volunteer and support the organization. For more information on registering, volunteering or making a donation, visit http://pinellashforh.org/.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Mary Urquhart’s last name.