Special Olympics Florida, a charitable organization, which provides sports trainings and competition for people with intellectual disabilities, invited 160 athletes throughout the state to compete in Florida’s Special Olympics State Equestrian Championship at the Grand Oaks Resort & Museum in Marion County on Friday and Saturday.
Kairee Whitmore, a 19-year-old athlete with autism representing Kiddy Up Ranch, a nonprofit therapeutic riding facility for children with special needs in Pasco County, made her way to the resort March 24 and 25 to participate in the competition. After training all year, Whitmore finally got the chance to show the judges what she could do.
At the entrance of the Grand Oaks Resort & Museum stands the statue of a horse. The museum is “home to one of the world’s largest private collections of carriages and equine artifacts,” according to the museum’s website. (Syama Allard/WUFT News)
Fans make their way to the competition site to find a seat before the games begin on March 24. Most of the athletes were still at the stalls preparing themselves and their horses for the day ahead. (Syama Allard/WUFT News)
Whitmore stands in a stall while getting ready to prepare her horse Big Rosie for the competition on March 24. Tammy Sliger, Whitmore’s riding coach and founder of Kiddy Up, said the horses at her ranch are family to the kids. “You take children we have that are wheelchair bound – well those horses literally become their feet beneath them,” Sliger said. “So now they’re able to be on top of a horse and in a situation where they’re not constantly looking up. For the first time, they can actually look down on something.” (Syama Allard/WUFT News)
Kiddy Up volunteer Courtney Thomas, 15, (left) does her best to control Big Rosie while Tammy Sliger (right) prepares to groom her before the competition on March 24. Thomas, who has been with Kiddy Up for about a year and a half, said she originally volunteered at the ranch to earn the required credit hours she needed for high school. Thomas said she loved the experience so much, however, she decided to continue volunteering even after her high school requirement was met. (Syama Allard/WUFT News)
Whitmore walks up to the competition site with her uniform in hand. Whitmore has been riding horses for eight years and has been with Kiddy Up for almost five. She said she hopes to be an equestrian coach some day. (Syama Allard/WUFT News)
Whitmore (left) and Kiddy Up volunteer Lyle Robinson finish preparing Big Rosie shortly before the competition begins. Sliger said most of the horses Kiddy Up uses have been somebody’s throw away. “We have repurposed them,” Sliger said. “We have seen where they just fit and partner up magically with these kids.” (Syama Allard/WUFT News)
Sliger comforts a nervous Whitmore shortly before the competition began Friday. Sliger said preparing an athlete goes above and beyond just teaching him or her what to do during a competition. “They need to be a teammate,” Sliger said. They need to be able to handle a disappointment. They need to know they may not get first place.” (Syama Allard/WUFT News)
Sliger stands by and watches as Whitmore and Big Rosie compete on March 24. Sliger, who founded Kiddy Up five years ago, said she was first inspired to open up her therapeutic riding facility while volunteering at another ranch. “They asked me to help with a child with special needs,” Sliger said. “I always had a passion for kids with special needs, and I rode as a child, so when they asked me to help, it was like — oh my god, this is what I knew that I was called to do.” (Syama Allard/WUFT News)
Whitmore performs in the “working trails” competition, completing a series of obstacles set up by the organizers. Although Whitmore was nervous, Sliger said Whitmore did really well. “Kairee has been a tremendous motivation – to watch her progress,” Sliger said. “She is, just by nature, a really good equestrian.” (Syama Allard/WUFT News)
Whitmore kneels down to hug Holly Evans, an 8-year-old girl with autism who also rides at Kiddy Up Ranch and who came to see Whitmore compete. Sliger said Whitmore and Evans are great friends. (Syama Allard/WUFT News)
Whitmore placed second in the “working trails” competition. Although Whitmore did not win, she was not at all discouraged. Sliger’s spirits were also high when she learned Whitmore placed second. “Every day we get to see a miracle,” Sliger said. “There’s not one day that we’re at Kiddy Up and go — ‘I just wish I wasn’t here today.’ That day doesn’t exist for us.”