Ahead of the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games, equestrian athletes from around the North America Region care for the horses at their home stables. Everything it takes to get a horse ready to ride, the athlete will do. From preparing the saddle, to feeding, to taking the reins, they build unbreakable bonds, some that people will never understand unless they are involved with equestrian.
In June, equestrian will be offered as an official sport for the first time during USA Games. It’s an opportunity for athletes that love horses to experience competition at a new level.
“Equestrian has never been offered at the USA Games, but it is a sport that is included in the World Games,” Courtney Rotton, Director of Sports for the USA Games, says. “Just knowing that there are many athletes participating in equestrian events we felt this was the best opportunity to introduce it to the USA Games. Hopefully moving forward it'll continue to be a part of all the USA Games.”
While Special Olympics athletes have horses they train with on a consistent basis, in Orlando they will have little time to get introduced to the horses on hand.
After researching and figuring out the best route to choose the horses, the Local Organizing Committee (LOC) investigated several therapeutic riding centers throughout Florida, who specifically work with individuals with intellectual disabilities. “We've recruited those horses, that would probably fit the best demographic of athletes,” Rotten says. Ahead of the Games, there will be a horse-matching and divisioning process for the athletes. Allowing competitors to ride different horses and get acclimated to them is an important detail to the process. “They’ll get roughly two days to get acclimated to those horses and hopefully to create a bond with them before competing on them,” Rotton says.
In equestrian having a relationship with the horse is critically important, as horses are loving, but often unpredictable creatures. Being put in a position like this creates challenges for the athletes and coaches, making the preparation that much more important.
Heather and Leah Glazer have been involved with equestrian for 14 years. While living in Dallas, Texas, the family became heavily involved with therapeutic riding. Shortly after, the family began volunteering and coaching, eventually leading to Leah competing.
“It quickly became a family activity and passion,” Heather says, about Leah’s involvement and what’s come of it.
And over a decade later moving to North Carolina, the Glazers started their own therapeutic riding center. Bright Star Stables is a therapeutic riding center and the home to two of the four North Carolina athletes selected to compete in equestrian at the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games.
Leah competes outside of Special Olympics as well, including local shows in North Carolina and throughout the country. Leah says with much enthusiasm in her voice, “it’s a great opportunity to meet new friends” and says she loves them all, not choosing a specific event as her favorite. Thanks to competing so frequently, she understands different levels of competition but is unfamiliar with the process of riding new horses. Heather adds, “the good thing about Special Olympics events is there’s a lot of different levels of riders. There’s supported riders, independent riders, some of them walk and some of them trot.”
Special Olympics equestrian athletes can choose between English or Western tack and enter a variety of different classes or levels. The multitude of competition opportunities ensures that everyone has an equal and fair level of play. And the USA Games will be no different, including when it comes to pairing athletes and horses.
Based on level of the athlete, each will fill out a rider’s profile form giving the style and type of horse they ride. It’s important to give as much information as possible because Special Olympics athletes cover a broad landscape.
“They will submit that form and then, in return, we will receive information from these therapeutic centers about what style horse the athlete rides, the weight, and just general information,” Rotten says.
In the meantime, coaches are doing everything they can to prepare their athletes to compete on a horse they've not had an opportunity to ride.
“The fact that we are going to be competing on a brand-new horse that we don't have that past history with yet that's a challenge. It's exciting but it's also a challenge, so I am preparing my athletes for that,” Heather says. “The number one thing I am doing is I am having them ride as many different horses as they can between now and our USA Games competition.”
Heather credits the equestrian community for being “one big extended family” and having horses available for her athletes.
More than 800 miles away, Special Olympics Bermuda athlete Eden Woollery is also training for the same challenge. Bermuda might not be the first place someone thinks of when it comes to an equestrian athlete, but it's proof that the equestrian extended family has members all around the world.
“I did not know that this was the first-time equestrian was being offered at the USA Games, but I am happy to be going,” Woollery says about making history. “I am really excited to be going to Disney World for the first time.”
Like Leah Glazer, talking through the process of riding an unfamiliar horse, Woollery, a 13-year veteran of equestrian competition, adds to the conversation, saying, “I am most nervous to ride a horse I have never rode before. I am going to continue my normal training every week and I hope the horse I get in Orlando cooperates with me."
Equestrian showcases the beautiful nature of human and animal interaction. While riding an unfamiliar horse presents an added challenge in their quest for a gold medal, the inherent resilience of Special Olympics athletes will serve them well in Orlando.