On this particular chilly, yes chilly, Florida day, I paid a visit to my old friend Rebecca Blitz, Executive Director at the Sarasota Manatee Association for Riding Therapy (SMART). Located out east at 4640 CR 675 in Manatee County, the association provides therapeutic horse related programs including horseback riding, carriage driving and equine assisted activities to kids and adults.
Hero, Rebecca’s recently rescued Great Dane, came barreling out to greet me and immediately stole my heart. I asked her to bring him for he is the spitting image of my Ziggy, who I miss terribly. That would have been enough to make my day but there was so much more!
I’ve known Rebecca for many years and I was so happy to get a chance to chat with her about her job, which she clearly loves in the place that has become quite near and dear to her. Born and raised in New Orleans, Rebecca grew up with a deep love of animals and has ridden horses her entire life. Her family moved to Sarasota in the mid-90’s and Rebecca was quick to become involved in the community. She took the position as director of SMART on April 1st, 2020 just as the pandemic forced them to close to the public. She is by far one of the most positive and lovely people I know and her bubbly personality always shines through in just about any situation. That, coupled with her extensive professional background with not-for-profit agencies, (mainly working with children and families), makes her qualified on every level for being at the helm. As she told me about this incredible facility and what they do, her eyes widened and her beautiful dimpled face lit up like a little kid in a candy store. It is clear that she loves what she does and as I was introduced to the horses, I can see the feeling is mutual. This is the definition of kismet.
SMART is almost completely volunteer driven with a fulltime staff of just three. The work to care for the horses and the facility is constant and includes every aspect of care and not for the faint of heart. There is lots of work to be done on a daily basis and for someone like me who has almost no experience around horses, seems a bit daunting. But not for the people who happily and generously give their time and energy for the pure love of being around these creatures!
I got to meet Melissa, a volunteer, who was just joyful as she told me she juggles her full-time job in order to make time to be at the facility several times per week. Witnessing her interact with the horses she clearly adores, makes that connection almost palpable.
I was taken on a tour of the 23-acre farm where I got to meet the residents — Logan, Monte, Gracie, Salsa Baby, Carly, Buddy Cassidy, Jazz, Gallagher, Cherokee, Sailor, Buddy Lee, Bella, Snoopy, and Teddy the Donkey. I met Magic, the gentle beauty who is completely blind. An infection caused him to lose his eyes and brought tears to mine. However, like the rest of the horses, this is his forever home and he is clearly happy, licking my hand just like a dog! Then there’s Sterling. This beautiful white horse came galloping up to us as if in slow motion. I can only describe him in terms that are familiar to me. If the horses were a backup band, Sterling is Mick Jagger. This gorgeous Percheron pretty much dwarfs the others in size. He looks like he rode straight out of a fairy tail. All that is missing is a knight in shining armor!
That said, we could all use a knight in shining armor in these days of COVID.
SMART relies on the generosity of donors to maintain the facility. Donations are gladly and gratefully accepted. They are experiencing a metamorphosis right now having finally opened to the public. Rebecca tells me there are so many exciting plans for the future with so much work yet to be done. The possibilities are endless.
Numerous organizations benefit from all they have to offer. But what spoke to me almost on a spiritual level was the fact that people come just to lay hands on the horses and feel their energy. I am an animal lover and wasn’t really convinced that this was a thing until it happened to me that day. I speak the truth when I say whether you ride or not, just being in the presence of these horses is calming. I will share that prior to my meeting, I was struggling with some issues that had me feeling “off”. I’m convinced that it was my time spent with Rebecca and these horses that gave me a sense calm and peace.
The grounds are simply beautiful. All types of events are in the works.
Who knows? Maybe you’ll see this Rockstar doing a gig with Sterling the Rockstar horse sometime!
Oh, and don’t think I didn’t try to smuggle Hero out! Lucky for Rebecca, he wouldn’t fit in my camera bag.
For more information on SMART please visit their website
Photos Courtesy of Sheri Nadelman