The Sarasota Manatee Association for Riding Therapy (SMART) carriage driving program is a fairy tale dream come true for people whose disabilities prevent them from riding. This unique program makes it possible for students to experience the joys of working with horses without requiring them to get on a horse or even leave their wheelchair.
Located in Bradenton, Florida, SMART has been providing equine therapy since 1987. The non-profit offers therapeutic riding and driving programs, as well as educational programs.
Former SMART director Gail Clifton became a PATH International-certified driving instructor and founded the driving program in 2003 with the goal of providing an effective equine therapy program for clients who were unable or unwilling to ride. With the help of a trusty Haflinger mare and a customized carriage, Gail established a successful driving program before handing the reins over to Samantha Toomey—also a PATH Intl.-certified driving instructor—in 2006.
In order to make driving accessible to everyone, SMART acquired a customized carriage complete with a wheelchair lift and removable seats. The carriage is now pulled by Sterling—a kind-eyed white Percheron gelding.
“He’s so good and so gentle,” says Toomey. “For him to be able to trust [the students] as much as they trust him is incredible. He has blinders on so it’s not like he can see them behind him, he just has to trust that everybody’s going to take care of him as well as he takes care of them.”
The driving sessions are generally done in groups of four. While one student drives, the other students enjoy the ride and participate in activities along the way. Students with a wide variety of disabilities have benefitted from the program, including those with cerebral palsy, vision impairment, paralysis, and emotional issues.
“For some [the biggest benefit] is just being able to get out of the norm,” says Toomey. “Getting out in the fresh air and being able to do things that no one else gets to do. For those participants who can’t use their legs, they have four awesome legs to guide them around and decide where they want to go. It gives them some independence.”
The carriage and white horse aren’t the only fairy tale similarities—the driving trail that students guide Sterling through includes life-size paintings of a fairy godmother and a cow jumping over the moon. The trail is designed to provide students with a variety of stimulating challenges. For the first activity, students pull a rope to raise a flag. They then proceed to the fairy godmother and on to interactive obstacles—for example, matching colored flags to colored poles. The trail also includes a covered bridge and a cul-de-sac of fruit trees where students can pick fruit.
New activities are frequently added, such as a ball tossing game or a trail drive around the SMART property. Giant Spanish-moss covered oaks and a serene pond make trail drives a beautiful and relaxing experience.
Students are encouraged to challenge themselves by driving independently, but SMART takes every precaution to ensure that everyone is safe during the sessions. Everyone in the carriage wears a helmet, and volunteers walk beside the carriage or provide student drivers with additional support if needed. Toomey takes Sterling for a safety spin before students get in the carriage and she holds a second set of reins when a student is driving.
Although SMART already offered a wide variety of equine therapy programs, Toomey emphasizes that the driving program has been a great addition because no one gets left out.
She says, “We have participants that can’t sit on a horse but they can get in the vehicle. Participants can’t always leave their wheelchairs, but this way, they can bring their chair with them.”
SMART is proving that therapeutic carriage driving is yet another way horses can bring joy and healing to those who need it most. Through the program, students are gaining new skills, self-confidence, and joy. And that’s as magical as any fairy tale.