TAMPA – Jill Benson is a beautiful girl.
Just ask her.
Benson, 35, suffers from Down syndrome and has a thyroid problem. She loves animals and loves riding them despite her disabilities.
Austin Nervez, 13, is a confident and talkative kid who just so happens to suffer from hyperactivity. He loves animals and loves riding them, as well, despite his disability.
Both rode in the Special Olympics Equestrian Championships at the Bakas Equestrian Center last week. Three teams competed and the winners move on to the state championships in Ocala in May. The Special Olympians may have their personal problems but, when they get to the Bakas center, the problems melt away.
Beth Harre-Orr runs the facility with plenty of help from Pat Vannetta. They have been there for more than 20 years and love working with the disabled. The Bakas facility has been in Odessa since 2001, when it moved from Lake Park. It is run by Hillsborough County as a therapeutic facility and has served hundreds of handicapped riders in its Horses for Handicapped program.
“We have enough of a clientele that want to participate and we have plenty of people,” Harre-Orr said. “We get by through word of mouth. Their community lets the word get around and, since so many of them run in similar circles, word gets out. We are very busy here.”
Vannetta said that the riders don't care that people want to know about their disabilities. They just want to ride.
“The disabled don't want people to worry about them,” he said. “When we need to know something, all we have to do is ask them and they tell us. It takes a lot of patience because they don't always know how to answer, but if you show patience, you find out what you need to know and they ride.”
Austin wanted to ride when he and his mother, Sary, heard about the facility. He started at Bakas when he was 5. He started volunteering at the facility and became known as the “barn brat.” He cleaned up after the horses, brushed and fed them, and started riding. His specialty is pole bending, riding horses around posts that is similar to slalom skiing. He won first place at the Special Olympics and that blue ribbon joined a bunch of others at his home. He rides his favorite horse, Diamond, whenever he can and has big plans. He wants to get into dressage and jumping horses.
“I just do it to have fun,” Austin said. “Riding has taught me a lot. It helps me physically and mentally. Seeing a horse is beautiful. It has taught me a personality that no one else sees. You think about it and it is so peaceful.”
Benson knew from the first time she visited Bakas that she was hooked. She is quite the athlete. She bowls, swims, plays bocce ball, and ice skates. Yes, she has Down syndrome, but she is perfectly happy at the farm.
“It is so beautiful here,” Benson said. “I have so much fun here.”
Benson rides her horse, Martini, and won a blue ribbon for showmanship and finished fifth in barrel riding. She loves riding the trails around the Bakas facility.
For more information on the Horses for Handicapped program at the Bakas Equestrian Center, call (813) 264-3890