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Special Equestrians center, damaged by Ian, to reopen Nov. 1

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Jan Fifer
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Special Equestrians' horses walk through a pasture with debris left by Hurricane Ian. The riding center, in Buckingham in Lee County, is preparing to reopen after repairs and cleanup.

As Hurricane Ian barreled through Southwest Florida, the volunteers and staff members of Special Equestrians worried about how the facility would endure the storm.

To prepare, it was decided that the horses would ride out the storm in the front pasture of the therapeutic horse-riding center's property in Buckingham in east Lee County, away from the buildings and possibly loose debris.

"You never know how strong the buildings are,” Jan Fifer, the executive director, said. “It's safer for them to be out, where if something is blowing, they can get away from it, they can move their feet. Mentally and emotionally, they're happier being able to escape.”

The 10 horses were untouched by the storm. They help more than 95 children and adults with physical and cognitive disabilities weekly, according to the Special Equestrians website. Therapeutic riding teaches emotional and physical processes, develops small and gross motor skills, problem-solving abilities, and creates a sense of community.

The facility caretaker, Roger Edwards, lives on the property with his wife, Cherene Edwards. They rode out the storm in the hay barn and looked after the horses when the storm passed.

“We had water from the storm surge, from the rivers, backing up into here and it was about 12 to 14 inches from going into the hay barn. We spent the night in there, because we weren't sure how high the water was going to come in,” Roger Edwards said.

The property wasn’t as fortunate. The damage included part of the horse barn’s roof coming off, the front gate became off-kilter with its hinges, fences were damaged from fallen trees, the arena viewing area was damaged, and a pressure tank to a well burst.

“Some of the damage was not major, but still important to fix. And other things like the roof of the horse barn, to me, was the most immediate need,” Fifer said.

After raising $14,000 through a Facebook fundraiser and mailed-in checks, the major damage was fixed quickly. She had never hosted a Facebook fundraiser and was amazed by the response from the community.

“It really just warmed my heart, I already knew that this community is very much behind Special Equestrians and supportive of us, but that just brought it home even more,” she said.

“It really just warmed my heart, I already knew that this community is very much behind Special Equestrians and supportive of us, but that just brought it home even more."
Jan Fifer, executive director Special Equestrians

Special Equestrians began the property clean-up on Oct.6.

“We had limbs everywhere, this place was littered with tree branches,” Fifer said. “And so far, we've had four volunteer days with the Special Equestrians volunteers coming here and helping us clean the property. And it's unbelievable the work they've done. It's like over 200 hours of volunteer labor to clean that up so far. Truly our volunteers are so amazing, and so fantastic, and they're the reason that it looks this good.”

FGCU held Make a Difference Day on Oct. 22, when volunteers were taken to area locations that needed help from the community. More than 30 students came to Special Equestrians to volunteer doing odds and ends around the property.

“There’s almost 15 acres here, and with all the damage that was done, one guy working would’ve taken me months and months and months to clear it all up so [we’re] very appreciative to all the volunteers that came and cleaned up all the garbage and debris,” Edwards said.

Many of the volunteers focused on cleaning up the sensory trail. This is where riders can go to 20 different activity and obstacle stations while on horseback.

“That sensory trail is something that FGCU originally initiated and so when they do their Make a Difference Day, they come here, and they revamp it for us and clean it all up good, but there is a lot of storm damage out there too,” Roxanne Berg, the administrative assistant, said.

Amber Bryant, a junior digital design in media student, was working with a group to spray paint a beam on the sensory trail that riders are able to guide the horse to walk over.

“We're doing this for our civic engagement class, and our project is a community-based issue that we're tackling. We chose Special Equestrians because we want to help the horses out and we wanted to help with the therapy aspect of it for mental health and people with disabilities,” Bryant said.

Mykal Josie, a senior majoring in child and youth studies, was on the other side of the sensory trail working on the wind chime station, where riders can embrace their musical abilities.

“We're rehanging wind chimes, they were a little bit rusty, we had to cut the chains, replace them, make new hooks and everything and then just hang them in order again,” Josie said. “[I’m] just helping out any way that I can, I enjoy doing it, so I’m happy to be here.”

At another area of the sensory trail, Michelle Miranda, a senior majoring in political science and the treasurer of Dominican Republic Outreach Program (DROP), was working with a group that was cleaning a mechanical lift and spray painting its metal support.

“We were lucky enough to come here, especially because this is something different that we've never done,” Miranda said. “[This] helps people who have a disability or people in a wheelchair, this is a way for them to lift them onto a horse.”

Her twin sister, Ashley Miranda, the president of DROP and a senior majoring in political science with a minor in economics, was volunteering, too.

“Service is something we live and do and breathe. Something we always promote is service above self,” Ashley Miranda said. “This is just like a normal day out for us. We just love doing service and we try to get out as much as we can to make a difference, this was just like a good opportunity to continue doing what we love.”

The work the volunteers did allows Special Equestrians to get one step closer to opening to their riders on Nov. 1. It’s been hard for the riders as the facility has been closed since Sept. 27.

“They get so much therapeutic value from coming to classes, besides the fact that it's their sport,” Fifer said. “I felt terrible that we had to take that away from them, but on the other hand, I could never live with myself if I allowed them to come here into a dangerous situation.”

Along with the physical activity that comes with horseback riding, therapeutic riding improves self-esteem, self-confidence, and increases the ability to focus and stay on task, according to the Special Equestrians website.

“I've seen kids walk that couldn't, talk that couldn't, seen a lot of miracles. [We’ve] had a girl with no legs that rode, had a lady with no arms that rode, so it's quite a program,” Dee Hollander, the founder of Special Equestrians, said.

This story was produced by Democracy Watch, a news service provided by Florida Gulf Coast University journalism students. The reporter can be reached at hklemery9681@eagle.fgcu.edu