by cindy kahler thomas | photos provided by whispers of hope horse farm
The Special Olympics is a well-known event with hundreds of people in attendance cheering on the participants, but what some don’t know is that there is an equine Special Olympics that takes place in Wichita Falls at the Whispers of Hope Horse Farm. The farm’s purpose is to enrich the lives of mentally and physically challenged individuals through equine therapy.
“The farm started nineteen years ago with a mission to serve the Lord by taking care of his children, the challenged children.”
~ Mary Elizabeth Pearce
Founder and Director Mary Elizabeth Pearce started the farm nineteen years ago with a mission to serve the Lord by taking care of his children, the challenged children, giving them an opportunity to grow and be able to do more things on their own.
Mary Elizabeth and Mike Strickland, the Area Director of Special Olympics, got the competition started 11 years ago at the farm. Mary Elizabeth had tried to organize it earlier, but it just didn’t work out until Mike came into the picture, and even then, “it took a couple of years to get it going. Finally, Mike and I got together and got it set up. It took time, but the results have been worth the effort.”
“The games have numerous categories. Some of the children’s favorites are: Showmanship, Walk Trot Equitation and Trail Patterns. The others involve jumping, poles, and running around barrels.”
~ Mary Elizabeth Pearce
The games have numerous categories. Some of the children’s favorites are: Showmanship which allows the participant to show the judges how the horse is handled while the rider is not riding. Then there is the Walk Trot Equitation which is when the children are on the horse performing a command walk or trot per Judge request with a handler. A handler walks beside the rider encouraging the horse on what to do. Riders can progress and don’t have to have the handler beside them, but the handler is somewhere close in the arena. The next category is Trail Patterns. This is more difficult because the pattern is displayed on the wall. “Riders must walk from here to there, trot over poles, work a gate and open a mailbox while riding. You have to memorize the pattern and then go execute it in the arena. It is pretty cool, and it takes a lot of work,” Mary Elizabeth said. The others involve jumping, poles, and running around barrels; however, they do it at a much slower pace.
“What we do is work eight weeks ahead of each Special Olympics event. We hold the district and some area events at our arena always on the first week in April. We start here which is our local horse show, then we have district competitions where several groups from around the area come here,” she explained. There are other therapeutic riding facilities in Ponder, Ft. Worth and in Plano. There are also several in Dallas. “They all come together and meet wherever their district is having a meet. Last time it was here at the farm and quite a few times it was here because we have an open and covered area. Then we look forward to whoever shows up and competes. Ribbons are awarded and some go on to the state level which is in Bryan, Texas,” Mary Elizabeth said.
“Up until last year, you had to be twelve and older to go. This year they started allowing some younger ones. This is the first year that we took a ten-year-old. We are the only one that has children competing everywhere that adults compete,” she said with pride. “We are also the only one around that is a no charge facility and has all volunteers. We are truly blessed to keep doing that, but we can’t do it without donations from our community, and grants to fund things we work with or need,” Mary Elizabeth explained.
“We had three of our children receive awards this past year at state. Alex Mountain won gold and silver medals, Jasmine Willis landed a silver and a bronze medal, and Anna Barnett took home 2 silver and a bronze medal. They all rode in 3 events each. Each of our challenged kids has a handler. Alex Mountain’s handler is JoEllen Dodson or ‘JoJo.’ Anna Barnett’s handler is Kirsten Polk. Jasmine Willis and Beatrice Flemming are a team and work together,” she said.
“We are also the only one around that is a no charge facility and has all volunteers.”
“JoJo was a challenged rider herself and has become a handler, to me that is one of the greatest accomplishments we can have. We have had her here since she was four years old, and now she is sixteen and has worked very hard to climb the ladder from challenged rider to handler. She is very knowledgeable, and she does a very good job,” Mary Elizabeth bragged.
Alex Mountain proudly showing his gold medal
“I have been here for 13 years. I started out as a challenged rider at four under supervision. I was really bad off and had a lot of helpers. I was in a bad spot. My mom was a new mom, and she didn’t know what to do about autism. Over the years I have progressed and am now a lead volunteer. I am showing on full scope. Showing means a volunteer that has the high responsibility of managing a challenged rider, themselves, and a horse while accompanying them to various shows. Challenged kids are our number one priority. It is an honor to go to Special Olympics. For challenged kids, it is a day to celebrate them. When you ride the whole ceremony celebrates what makes you, you. No one cares if the horse runs you all over the arena; you can still place first. They only care about you. My last year competing I got all gold (3) at an advanced level,” JoJo said with a grin.
Susanne Willis, Jasmine’s mom, has nothing but praises to sing about Whispers of Hope Horse Farm and the equine Special Olympics. Jasmine was brought to the farm with an art camp that had a day with the horses when she was six. “I told them there was no way she would get on a horse. She has autism and is very fearful. Well, she did, and they could hardly get her off. So that was her thing. We didn’t come consistently until she was nine when her school told us that she needed regular involvement with the horses. She is now 18 and has gone to horse shows that they have here. She has gone to state every year that she was eligible for her age category. She loves it, and it is what brings her joy. It has given us joy because we just didn’t believe that she could ever do anything like this. It has changed her totally. I am so thankful that she went with that camp because I wouldn’t have taken her otherwise. I would have thought that she wouldn’t do it. It is just wonderful. I hope all the challenged kids out there—the little ones coming up—will try Whispers of Hope because it is a wonderful place,” Susanne explained.
In order to go to state, money must be raised to cover the costs for the challenged child, their family, and the handlers, as well as transportation and care of the horses attending the Friday through Sunday event. It takes an army of volunteers to accomplish this task.
“The lessons I have learned from the children are patience and kindness, even though they will tell you I am meaner than dirt, but they will tell you at the same time I am not,” Mary Elizabeth chuckled, “We are giving the challenged children an opportunity to be able to do more things on their own. We want more to come and join the team and then possibly compete in the equine Special Olympics or have weekly riding sessions. Everything we do here is to better our challenged children’s lives in the community, which helps all families. We are blessed to continue that service to the children, the families and our community, but mainly for God’s Glory.” †
For more information call (940) 696-8044
3545 Parkhill Rd # 1, Wichita Falls, TX 76310