By ANDREA SHAY
Saturday, May 7, marked not just the “fastest 2 minutes in sports” — more commonly known as the Kentucky Derby — but for the Sarasota-Manatee Association for Riding Therapy (SMART), it also marked their biggest fundraising event of the year.
SMART’s third annual Derby Day event, “Mint Juleps and Roses,” featured a beautifully decorated outdoor dinner, music performances by Kim Betts Acoustic and a live viewing of the Kentucky Derby’s “Run for the Roses,” in addition to tours of the stables, a live and silent auction and contests for best hat and best tie.
SMART offers theraputic horseback riding, therapeutic carriage driving and other equine-assisted activities to participants who have autism, are on the austism spectrum or have other physical, cognitive, social or emotional disaiblities. SMART also has programs for veterans and breast cancer survivors, as well as a literacy program for 4th graders.
According to assistant executive director Brandi Ezell, all of the money raised at the Derby Day fundraiser goes directly back into the organization. This year, they’re hoping to raise money to cover their outdoor riding arena so participants can ride year-round regardless of weather conditions. Currently they are unable to have lessons or riding practice during the summer months due to heat and rain.
The organization relies mostly on volunteers, who are “very important, very dedicated, very hardworking,” said Ezell. “They’re the heart of the program, while the horses are the soul of the program.”
Ezell believes SMART’s equine-assisted therapies have been so successful because they offer unconditional acceptance for both participants and families, who often face discrimination and hardships in daily life.
While she’s worked with SMART, Ezell has seen participants’ self-confidence increase and their anxiety decrease, and she attributes this to the fact that SMART provides an inclusive environment that allows them to simply be themselves. Laughing, she points out that horses don’t judge anyone based on whether or not they have a disability. Moreover, participants don’t just learn to ride, they also learn trust, empathy and compassion.
SMART regularly works in conjunction with other organizations that help people with disabilities become healthier and more independent, such as Easter Seals and Beyond the Spectrum. To help educate the public, SMART also offers free tours for the community and free field trips for local schools.
During the event, Ezell expressed a great deal of gratitude toward both the local community as well as the Derby Chair Committee and Derby Day fundraiser chair Lupe Sosa. “What we do is not possible without community support,” she said.