‘Denim & Diamonds’ celebrates therapy horse power

Karen and Jimmy Johnson [Photo: Mary Schenkel]

Supporters of Special Equestrians of the Treasure Coast trotted over to the Vero Beach Country Club for Denim and Diamonds to support the special needs equine-assisted therapy programs that help improve the lives of children and adults.

During the cocktail hour, guests nibbled on hors d’oeuvres, had their photos taken in front of a Western backdrop and perused a variety of equine-themed auction items. Many chuckled over sweet thank-you notes written to “Dear Horse Ladies” by first-graders at Dodgertown Elementary School.

“It’s a program sponsored by a Grand Harbor Community Outreach grant,” explained Vickie Penly of the ‘horse powered’ reading program. “They’ve been coming about five years, either first- or second-graders.”

During cocktails and a delicious buffet dinner, guests were entertained by soft music by singer/guitarist David Goodman.

“We are having a very exciting year and we are seeing growth in all areas,” said Karen Johnson, SETC executive director. The nonprofit, founded in 1992, has grown its programming, volunteers and students, who now number more than 120. “We love what we do, and I truly mean that. Everybody that has anything to do with us loves it too.”

In a video presentation, several parents spoke about their children’s remarkable developments thanks to equine therapy.

Bethany Gilman spoke of her 6-year-old daughter Aurora, born with an extremely rare genetic disorder that delays physical and mental development.

“When she started riding with Special Equestrians, she was 4 years old and could barely sit upright in a chair,” said Gilman. “She very quickly gained much improvement, and I owe a huge amount of that to her weekly riding lessons.”

Similar grateful testimonials described improvements to children’s balance, posture, self-confidence and social interactions.

“We also have a non-mounted program for our students who, for one reason or another, are not able to ride but they are able to learn all aspects of horsemanship,” said Johnson.

Dar Dennis, a SETC instructor and breast cancer survivor, spoke about their Ride Beyond Diagnosis program for women diagnosed with breast cancer. Now entering its fifth year, they are opening it up to all women’s cancers.

“This is a program built to give support to our ladies for their journey,” said Dennis, adding that they call one part of the equine therapy ‘hug a horse.’

Breast cancer survivor Kimberly Nardone shared that “hugging horses was the first time in a whole year that I cried. Picasso, I think it was, ended up saturated with tears. I felt safe and I felt loved. It was beyond any other thing that has healed me. Hug a horse is really great; everyone was teasing me but it’s real.”

Johnson explained that all SETC instructors are trained and certified by PATH (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International), which sets very rigorous standards. Their goal is to become a PATH Premier Center with a covered arena on their own property.

“There’s so much that we can do if we have our own place,” said Johnson, adding that they would like to add other programs, including one for veterans.

After thanking supporters, board members and instructors, Vinnie Parentela, board president, said, “I just want to briefly thank one other group of ours. Sorry they could not make it tonight, but they would mess up the carpeting and they’re really hungry at this hour so we left them out at the barn and the pasture. Without them, this would not be possible. They are our therapists; we have to thank them also.”


Photos by: Mary Schenkel
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