It was a hot and sticky evening, as remnants of the afternoon’s rain seemed to rise from the dewy blades and linger on the skin. But the South Florida summer couldn’t stop the dozen or so children from pouring onto the rodeo arena at the Clewiston Fairgrounds on July 1 for the Exceptional Equestrians program.
Held the first Tuesday of each month, Exceptional Equestrians is the culmination of years of frustration countered by years of dedication to bringing a support system for children with special needs to the area.
Mother and special needs activist Stephanie Busin said she was frustrated by the county’s lack of resources and support for kids with autism and their parents, when she first spoke with County Commissioner Karson Turner about bringing the Exceptional Equestrians program to the Clewiston Fairgrounds.
As a mother of a child with autism, Busin became discouraged by Hendry County’s lack of autism-specific resources, including doctors who can diagnose and treat children with autism, support groups and access to effective treatments. Busin said with only 40 children in Hendry County diagnosed with autism, there are 63 children who have an autism spectrum disease who have not been properly diagnosed, if the county were on par with the Center for Disease Control’s autism prevalence rate.
Busin originally envisioned the program being specifically for children with autism, but as the program evolved, it opened itself up to any child with any kind of special need — no questions asked.
“We don’t ask for any paperwork. There doesn’t need to be a diagnosis. We don’t ask. I think parents get enough of that. The thing is, just come. If you feel you want to be here, then come and be a part of it,” said Busin. “Even if the child is not ‘exceptional,’ they’re learning empathy towards other kids and it gives these kids a chance to socialize.”
The program sees kids from all over the area, including LaBelle and Glades County, coming to the Clewiston Fairgrounds to join in on the therapeutic fun. The program is free for participants, thanks to the generosity of volunteers who bring their horses, saddles and other riding necessities to the fairgrounds each month.
Commissioner Turner, Clewiston residents Lisa Kelley and Laura Smith, and the Blackwell Family, of LaBelle, are among some of the dedicated volunteers who devote their time and resources to the program.
But the program would be nothing without the exceptional children who participate each month, and the support they receive from their families and friends as they make their way around the rodeo arena atop the gentle horses.
“There just something about an animal,” said Busin, about the therapy that horseback riding provides children with special needs. “It can be a challenge to get them [the kids] here, but once they’re here, they’re hooked. It’s rare that we have a kid come once and not return.”
Even as the earth began to darken, children were still waiting anxiously to take their turn around the rodeo grounds. Climbing onto the horse with the help of a volunteer and a small step stool, the exceptional kids took a special ride around the arena one last time before the sun set on that July 1 evening.
“This program has really been a blessing,” said Busin.