The Marion Therapeutic Riding Association on Saturday celebrated 40 years of service, memories, and inspiring moments.
The celebration — at the College of Central Florida Vintage Farm in Marion County — highlighted the association’s mission of helping those who live with physical and mental challenges in Marion County and nearby communities by offering equine-assisted learning and therapeutic horseback riding for all ages.
Jenna Rovira, the association’s development director, explained with exuberance their journey over the years and what it took to reach this point.
“I think it is incredible we have been able to make it for 40 years and to see the growth that has come through the year. We started on a small farm and then went to hillcrest school and eventually grew to add a second location where we are at currently,” Rovira said.
Getting this far takes a collective effort. With the association having just three full-time staff members according to Rovira, it had to get help from somewhere else. This is where the community played its part.
According to Rovira, they are operating heavily off volunteer support.
“The community has supported us through volunteering. Currently, we have between 150 and 200 active volunteers each week. Basically, without the support of the community helping with our funding, we couldn’t do what we do,” Rovira said.
Additionally, the group is supported through donations and grants. Volunteers are very important but are only one part of the equation.
“I think the magic in it is the horses. The animals provide a vehicle for the clients to be able to learn how to reflect on their own energy and emotions and feelings, what they’re going through, without judgment without any kind of critical attack or criticism,” Rovira said.
It has not always been smooth sailing over the 40 years of giving back to the community.
“Lows, I mean, financially, there’s been struggles through the years,” Rovira said. “I think board members helped support payroll even at one point at one of the most crucial times.”
Although, there have been more highs than lows in their time as well.
“To see the successes and the progress, to see the growth, the connections, to see kids able to speak for their first words or first time in years of speaking,” Rovira said. “The people that are able to walk, that their doctors are saying they don’t understand why they’re still walking there’s no way this should be.”
When going for 40 years in this type of work, you’re bound to make everlasting memories and it is extremely difficult to choose the best of them when trying to single out the favorite of them all.
Rovira cited one of her own personal favorite memories.
“We had one young lady in particular. She was in a wheelchair, and she was able to use our lift. It’s, it’s a mechanical lift, and she can adjust and put her legs into the hooks. And then press the button herself and the instructor would slide her over and she could lower herself onto the horse. It was very empowering, allowing her to have that independence. And then I know she would express when she was on a horse that she felt like there were no limitations. She was able to get that horse to go wherever she wanted. And once she had that experience, it gave her the confidence, the enthusiasm, and joy to use that outside of riding as well,” she said.
When it comes to those who participated in the association, some have said they have been saved due to the care they received.
Jason Vickness, a participant in the program, claimed he would not be here today without it.
“Major Tom, my horse, he saved my life. His story is a lot like mine, where he was used and abused and then when he was done, he was left out to the curb. And that’s how a lot of us veterans feel when our service is done. Through him, I find my way out of that hole,” Vickness said.
Could he recall a favorite memory?
“Yes! It’s hard for me to walk and the first day I pulled Tom out of his pen he was going faster than me, and I was like “Bro I can’t walk that fast.” Tom literally put his shoulder next to my shoulder and matched my pace. From that moment on, I knew me and him were going to be all right,” Vickness said.
Mike Post is another celebration attendee and part of the association’s veteran group.
“The entire facility is my Shangri-La. When you come through that gate, it is like everything changes — no matter what is happening in the world,” Post said.
The 40 years of service have granted all of the association’s workers and participants memories like these. And for Rovira, the hopes are they continue for even more.
“Really, we couldn’t do what we do without the support from the community to help sustain us for 40 years and hopefully another 40 more,” said Rovira.