MIDDLEBURG – When Christopher Frierson first touched his awards from the Florida’s Special Olympics – a silver medal and a fourth place ribbon – he shot his arm in the air, threw his head …
MIDDLEBURG – When Christopher Frierson first touched his awards from the Florida’s Special Olympics – a silver medal and a fourth place ribbon – he shot his arm in the air, threw his head back and screamed his triumph to the packed banquet hall.
“Yes!” he said.
April 30 was a day of firsts and a celebration of triumphs for Frierson and the Middleburg-based nonprofit Hope Therapy and the whole of Clay County. This was the first year Hope Therapy, Northeast Florida’s leading hippotherapy program, sent representatives from their program to compete in the equestrian section of the Special Olympics. Hippotherapy uses horseback riding as a therapeutic or rehabilitative treatment, especially as a means of improving coordination, balance and strength.
This year, officials held the event at the Grand Oaks Resort and Museum in Weirsdale, Florida.
“It was our first time ever doing the competition,” said Rebecca Davenport, co-director of Hope Therapy. “This was the first time Clay county or Duval have ever had Special Olympics for equestrian so it was a special time to give that chance to our riders.”
Together, Frierson and fellow special athlete Darby Butts participated in two of the available for equestrian competitions. Frierson took silver in western riding and fourth place in western trail. Butts took gold in western trail and bronze in western equitation.
“We had heard from some of the people who come regularly that their riders have never placed or medaled,” said Pam Frierson, Christopher’s mother and resident of Middleburg. “It’s amazing, the fact that they both medaled, we’re very proud of them, they both practiced hard.”
Once they were approved to compete in the fall, Davenport and Pam Frierson started to look at what they would need to compete.
Although Frierson owns his own horse, Sammie, Davenport brought in the help of a tried and true Olympic horse, BJ. Perry Hopper, a special needs teacher and Special Olympics coach, donated the horse for the event.
Frierson’s family built a mock obstacle course on their property to give him a chance to practice whenever he needed to.
Davenport has worked with Frierson, now 14, since he was two years old. A volunteer at Hope Therapy put in the legwork to get the program on the pathway to sending him and Butts to the Olympics.
After qualifying in front of a judge, training for the Olympics started in January, according to Davenport. Normally, Davenport uses her 18-and-a-half-acre property to train riders, but she wanted to give her riders a glimpse of what their facilities would look like during the Olympics, so she elicited the help of the Jacksonville Equestrian Center.
Davenport has owned and operated the Middleburg-based therapy program with her mother since 2001. Davenport, a certified occupational therapist, uses her skills and property to provide therapeutic help to those with disabilities.
“We can do everything I can do in a clinic but on top of a horse,” Davenport said.
Davenport also holds therapy sessions for cancer patients and veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and other traumatic brain injuries. She said the movement of the horse in a natural setting helps calm some of the stress her clients live with.
Pam Frierson said hippotherapy has helped Frierson with more than his trot as well. Davenport works with Frierson on his trunk strength and upper body endurance as well as his cognitive delay, an associated symptom of Frierson’s condition.
“Part of his learning is learning the care of the horse. He learns to groom them and saddle them it helps him learn responsibility, but it also helps with sequencing,” Pam Frierson said. “It’s sometimes hard for them to sequence the order of events. You don’t just get on a horse – you have to catch the horse, then groom the horse, then put a saddle on, then you have to do that in reverse order.”
The responsibility factor comes into play when Frierson goes with Davenport to feed the horses on nights when he’s the last rider at the facility.
Pam Frierson said her son intends to compete next year as well. Currently, Davenport doesn’t see him as much as she used to because Frierson has more responsibilities than he did before this year’s Olympics.
He’s heading off to horse camp for a week in Marion County. Next year, Frierson is entering the North Florida School of Special Education in Jacksonville as a high school freshman, something he hasn’t forgotten to tell everyone he knows, Pam Frierson said.
Davenport said she will expand her program next year in the hopes she can give her other students the same pride Frierson experienced during this year’s Olympics. If so, she said, she’ll begin training once the weather cools down.
“To see their smiles when they got those medals was just amazing,” Davenport said. “We just had really good support from the people involved with our organization. It was really a nice experience and we’re hoping to do it next year.”