This neighborhood is home and hub to horse-loving locals who provide compassionate care to resident animals and riders
In the northwest corner of Seminole County, a beautiful, remote neighborhood called Seminole Estates backs up to the southern tip of Sanford’s 1,600-acre Black Bear Wilderness Area. The quaint junction is a breath of fresh air from the everyday buzz of daily life. Narrow backcountry roads lined with Florida flora stretch for miles, and residents enjoy the luxury of multi-acre estates. For ranch owners Elise and Jim Hulme, this lifestyle is something they’ve turned into a breeding ground for good.
“When we moved to Sanford in 1996, I wanted to use our ranch to start an equestrian program for riders with special needs and train the athletes myself,” says Elise. “It’s something I had become very passionate about after volunteering for years with handicapped riders in South Florida. I was often left speechless by the way the riders would respond to the horses, and I wanted to see if I could start a similar program here.”
When Elise connected with Seminole County about her idea, she learned that the local Special Olympics equestrian program had been discontinued. With support from the County, the hands-on Hulme couple got to work on their ranch. They cleared trees and brought in sand to make a riding arena and put up proper railing.
Over the last 20 years, the Hulmes’ five-acre property, known as Circle H Ranch, has doubled as the training facility for athletes with intellectual disabilities in Seminole County’s Special Olympics equestrian program. Three of the nine horses on property are specially trained to work with athletes who have special abilities.
“It’s been wonderful, just wonderful,” says Elise, who juggled coaching duties with her full-time job at AAA until her recent retirement.
Elise and a faithful team of volunteers and coaches train six special-needs equestrian athletes and spend much of their time together traveling to and from shows to compete in divisions such as dressage, equitation, barrels, working trails, and showmanship. The small group of riders range in their abilities, but all exhibit incredible discipline in a very specialized and challenging sport. Horseback riding requires great stamina, core strength, and the ability to withstand long hours spent at competitions, which can be physically and mentally strenuous.
“Our athletes do a great job taking it all in,” says Victoria Johnson-Soto, director of Special Olympics Seminole County. “The fact that they are controlling an animal and performing is an amazing thing to witness.”
There’s currently a waiting list for special-needs athletes to join the equestrian program because the athlete/coach ratio is intentionally kept low to make safety and one-on-one attention top priorities. Several of the riders have trained with Elise for more than a decade, like Lake Mary resident Mandy Petruzzelli. A typical training day for Mandy and her fellow riders involves conditioning, warm-up exercises, an obstacle course challenge, and drills. All this hard work has definitely paid off over the years at competition.
“We’ve been very blessed to have Elise as one of our coaches,” says Victoria. “The results have been great. From 2016 to 2018, every one of our riders improved by one-to-two places over their previous finishes at both area- and state-level competitions.”
“Every time we go to a show, the athletes do so well,” adds Elise. “They get up on the podium to get their medals or ribbons just like regular Olympians. It’s so touching. I cry all the time,” she says with a laugh. “They don’t want people to feel sorry for them. They want you to cheer them on. In all my years, I’ve seen that special-needs athletes are very hard workers. They’re task driven and conscientious.”
While some riders do compete with the assistance of a coach, Elise’s ultimate goal is to have all the athletes ride, trot, or canter independently. Through the program, athletes also learn how to properly groom, saddle up, and care for the horses with the assistance of volunteers. Elise says the whole process, from learning to care for a horse to learning to ride, helps the athletes build self-confidence and puts them on an even playing field with their able-bodied colleagues.
“It’s amazing to watch the growth that happens,” says Elise. “Some learners are timid at first, but then they start talking to the horse and building a relationship. They build self-esteem. I believe the experience helps them assimilate into society and not feel ashamed or embarrassed or different from anyone else.”
Elise praises her incredible, boots-on-the-ground team of volunteers and coaches as the engine behind the success of the equestrian program. They also assist at seasonal and holiday camps and on select Saturdays for Little Buckaroo Camp, a riding program Elise hosts for all kids ages two to six and those with special abilities.
“I couldn’t do it without them,” Elise says of her volunteers. “They’re a tremendous help. Our volunteers, especially our younger volunteers, put in countless hours. I think the interaction with the athletes is a great way for them to spend one-on-one time developing better communication and leadership skills.”
New to retirement, Elise may be finished with her professional career, but there’s no end in sight for her devotion to making Seminole County’s Special Olympics equestrian program better, one stride at a time.
“I love horses and helping others, and I’m grateful to do something that combines both,” says Elise. “I’m going to keep doing this for as long as I can.”
Mandy the Rider
Lake Mary resident and veteran special-needs athlete Mandy Petruzzelli has never been bound by her limitations.
“Mandy amazes us because doctors had told us she wouldn’t be able to swim, ride a bike, or do anything so active due to her developmental delay,” says Mandy’s mom, Lorrie. “She’s exceeded everything. She loves sports, and it’s her social life. She especially loves taking care of the horses and has a talent for handling them. We are so grateful for Elise’s program. She’s gone above and beyond to take Mandy to shows and help her become a better rider.”
Mandy, now 32, participated in swimming and softball before discovering horseback riding at age 12. She’s been making strides ever since.
“Horseback riding can be a sport where you need to handle criticism, but Mandy has no fear and always tries her best,” says Lorrie.
Not only is Mandy an athlete, but she is one of a few athletes in Seminole County who is also a certified coach, a high achievement which requires regular training. When Mandy isn’t riding, coaching, or competing, she helps with her family’s business and spends quality time with her siblings.
In this year’s Special Olympics Florida State Equestrian Competition, Mandy received first- and second-place medals.
“Getting through to the state level was phenomenal,” says Lorrie. “Mandy showed such sportsmanship and camaraderie. There have been so many proud moments with Mandy, and we couldn’t be happier.”
Call Me Coach
Athlete Cody Brown, 25, is lucky to have both her mother and sister as volunteer coaches with the Special Olympics equestrian program.
Karen Sigman-Wilson and Clara Brown have been involved since 2008 when Cody was accepted into the program. Now in their 10th season, both have reached the highest level of qualification and are eligible to be chosen as World Special Olympics coaches – a goal they hope to one day achieve.
Karen and Clara volunteer throughout the equestrian program’s season, which runs from October to April, helping to improve the athletes’ skills and traveling to shows every month.
“We love what we do,” says Karen. “Going to competitions is so exciting, and being able to do all of this alongside Cody is special. From a mother’s point of view, horseback riding has helped her in so many ways. Her balance is better, and she’s found something she enjoys.
Having my daughter Clara as a coach is special, too, because the three of us will always have this experience to remember together.”
Cody has participated in other programs for special-needs individuals such as belly dancing and bowling, but found her true love in horseback riding. She also volunteers regularly at camps to help the little kids.
“She is living her life as normally as possible,” says Karen. “I’m not going to have Cody miss out on fun things just because of her disability. Plus, being her coach definitely keeps us both in shape and active!”
Meet Jenna and Brooke
Dressed in comfortable T-shirts, jeans, and well-worn boots, Lake Mary High student Jenna Delgado and Wilson Elementary student Brooke Miller fit right into the ranch lifestyle. Both girls are avid horse lovers who spend an impressive portion of their time at Circle H Ranch helping Elise at camps and assisting with special-needs athletes.
“Being able to bring happiness to our special-needs athletes is just so enlightening,” says Jenna. “I know I’m making a difference in their lives, and they’re helping me, too. It means a lot to me to give them an opportunity to show off their skills.”
Jenna, 16, also rides competitively and has logged more than 600 hours as a senior volunteer. Now entering her fifth season with the Special Olympics program, she’s determined to balance a rigorous school load, a job, and an unwavering commitment to volunteering on a weekly basis.
“Volunteering is something I can’t cut out of my schedule,” Jenna says. “One day I want to start my own program and carry on our coach’s legacy.”
Eight-year-old Brooke, on the other hand, is eager to turn 13 so she can officially become a volunteer. For now, she takes lessons at the ranch and helps out with the younger kids and special-needs riders at camp.
“If there’s a chance of me riding a horse or even being near one, it’s gonna happen,” says the adorable Brooke. “Blue, the mini horse, is my favorite. She follows me everywhere.”
Brooke’s mom Kim is the one who often has to wrangle Brooke into the car to head home.
“When I bring her to Circle H Ranch to do lessons or help out at camps, she doesn’t ever want to leave,” Kim says with a smile. “It’s a great place for her to be, though. All the kids, no matter if they are special-needs or not, are treated the same, and I want her to be in that kind of caring environment.”
Get to know a few of the neighbors at Seminole Estates
Gary and Pat Feverston
Gary and Pat Feverston live just a few streets away from Circle H Ranch. Their five-acre farm is home to three beautiful horses, Ferran, Jasmine, and Red Sky. Each horse was acquired differently, but all have a happy place to roam at the Feverston residence.
“We love horses and have always owned a few,” says Gary. “We’re a family of riders and have been for ages. We get so much joy out of taking care of them.”
Gary’s daily routine doesn’t always start with a standard cup o’ joe. He’s usually out the door first thing in the a.m., refilling feed and water for the horses, washing and cleaning them, and cleaning his riding gear.
While each horse has its origin story, Ferran’s path to the Feverstons’ farm is particularly interesting. When Gary’s daughter, Ann Payne, became a police officer in the Orlando Police Department Mounted Unit, she was paired up with Ferran, an Australian thoroughbred and retired racehorse-turned-police-horse.
“Ferran is retired from the police force now, but he’s had quite the life!” says Gary. “From Australia to the USA to the race tracks, and then to the police force, this horse has seen and done it all.”
The Tolle Farm
When the Tolle family first moved into their home in Seminole Estates three years ago, they had one pony for their horseback-riding daughter Allison, now nine, and a boarder horse from Allison’s trainer. Since then, they’ve rescued several horses and a donkey and recently became parents to adorable baby fainting goats. Due to severe malnourishment and poor care, the rescue animals required special attention and multiple treatments to get them back in good medical standing.
“The animals and the farm can be a lot to take care of, but we love it, and we love our property and the community here,” says Allison’s mom, Kelly. “It’s open and quiet and we can hear the peaceful noises of nature. The neighborhood is tight-knit. Everyone knows what’s going on at one another’s properties, so we keep an eye out for each other.”
One time, for example, one of the Tolles’ goats went astray, but a neighbor quickly spotted it and returned the goat home safely.
There’s never a dull moment in the busy Tolle household of five. The family spends each day doing farm chores and tending to the animals, and Allison spends every day training with her pony, Coal.
“When Allison first started horseback riding, that’s how we got involved with owning horses, and now we’ve taken it to a whole new level at the farm,” laughs Kelly. “It doesn’t feel like extra work, though. We love that our spare time is time well-spent and in the outdoors.”
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