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Gail Clifton volunteered for 17 years as executive director of SMART (Sarasota Manatee Association for Riding Therapy). She’s now a volunteer instructor in the therapeutic horseback riding program that last year served 697 people with special needs from attention deficit disorder to Down syndrome. The Tampa Bay Lightning recently donated $50,000 to SMART in her honor, and named her a Community Hero.

“An amazing connection happens when animals and children with challenges get together. Children with autism won’t acknowledge another person, but if they see horses they walk right up to them. Kids who [psychologically] were unable to speak—their first words are ‘walk on’ or their horse’s name."

 “A horse moves in a three-dimensional movement that creates a rhythm with the rider. It opens up neural pathways to allow speech to happen, balance to improve. It’s a very holistic benefit.”

“In 2011 we bought a pretty equestrian ranch on 23 acres in eastern Manatee County; it had been a pipe dream for all of us. Before that, we had a free lease with the Hunsader family on their farm. Unfortunately, we have a very long waiting list, about 40 kids.”

“We’re a small organization, under $400,000 a year. We’re able to work because of our legion of volunteers, taking care of the horses and managing the kids.”

For information about SMART, visit smartriders.org.

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