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Riding High

Featured Photo from Riding High

When it comes to winning, these local Special Olympians aren’t horsing around

The World Equestrian Center in Ocala was a proving ground for some local champions this spring. 
Six Seminole County Special Olympics equestrians showed their stuff at the 2021 State Games – collectively taking home nine gold medals, one silver, and one fourth-place medal. The athletes showed off their skills in competitions such as barrel racing, where horse and rider negotiate a three-leaf-clover pattern around a set of barrels as quickly as possible, and Western-style riding, which requires a larger saddle. 
Elise Hulme, who owns the five-acre Circle H Ranch in Sanford where the athletes train, reports that first-time competitor Ashley Lefreniere of Winter Park won two gold medals in her category. The 32-year-old had participated in the Special Olympics equestrian program previously but never made it to the State Games. She more than made up for it this year, times two. 

Other equestrian athletes from the Circle H Ranch included:

• Cody Brown of Winter Springs, 28, won two gold medals.

• Saris Garcia of Apopka, 20. She won two gold medals of her own.

• Dallas Gilbert of Casselberry, 27, won one gold medal and a silver.

• Jennifer Ihrig of Apopka, 23, won two gold medals.

• Amanda Petruzzelli of Lake Mary, 35, placed fourth. 

Not to be forgotten, says Elise, are the other champions of the day – the horses, of course, which are specifically trained for special-needs riders. Carrying the Special Olympians were Cayenne and Skippy – who are both 18 years old – and the 25-year-old Alvin.

Elise trains her athletes to be comfortable riding a variety of horses so they can be flexible during competitions and use their skills on any of her steeds.

“You can’t always predict how they are going to act,” Elise says of her horses. “They have that side to them that’s instinctual and primitive. Some of the riders can handle it, but it depends on the rider. I try to get them used to the fact that the horses can be unpredictable.” 

The riders, themselves, vary greatly in their abilities, too. Some compete in other Special Olympics sports. Others don’t.
“Jenny does this and swimming, but Cody just does this,” says Elise. “Dallas also does stand-up paddle-boarding.
Often, making headway in one Special Olympics competition gives athletes the confidence they need to try another.

Ring Leader

Elise, of course, is a champion in her own right. 

She and her husband Jim have owned their ranch since 1996. They started with just two horses on property that backs up to the Black Bear Wilderness Area.

After moving to Sanford from South Florida in ‘96, Elise wanted to stay involved with horses and the equestrian scene. She and Jim purchased the land, had some trees removed, and created a small arena ring where athletes with special needs could train. Elise had trained special athletes to ride in the past, and she wanted to start her own volunteer coaching and training program in our community. 

“We’ve been here now 25 years,” says Elise.

The Circle H Ranch is a curated community where those interested in horses and riding thrive and find purpose. Each week, eight to 10 volunteers come to the ranch to work with Elise and two assistant coaches to train riders with special needs.
“Everyone who is here wants to be here, and they want to work with disabled persons,” says Elise. “For athletes who want to learn about horses, they will get it here.” 

Terry Barcus is one of those volunteers. She was a key factor in helping Ashley, Cody, Saris, Dallas, Jennifer, and Amanda bring home big wins this year.

Terry sprang into action when Elise’s truck was stolen a week before the State Games. The truck was needed to tow the gooseneck trailer used to transport all three horses to the Ocala event. Without it, the horses and their riders would be forced to cancel the trip.

“Terry had the right kind of truck and trailer and saved the day,” Elise says. 

Learning to ride, trot, and canter certainly represents a great source of pride for these athletes. But with the 2020 Special Olympics State Games canceled due to the pandemic – and then the 2021 Area Games scrapped because of an equine virus outbreak – victories at the 2021 State Games were that much sweeter, giving these six champions even more reasons to smile.

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