Each year, Helen Woodward Animal Center’s Therapeutic Riding Program is delighted to show off the skills of its riders in an annual Center Riding Show. This November, a special student named Elizabeth “Lizzy” Simas took those skills to a national competition and her quest to win came with a real-life fairytale ending.
Simas had a life filled with medical trials. Diagnosed prenatally with an extra female chromosome, she was born with bilateral hip dysplasia and by the age of 3 had been diagnosed with Legg Calve Perthes Disease – a childhood hip disorder in which a disruption of blood flow to the femur causes the bone to die and stop growing. At the age of 4, Simas underwent multiple surgical procedures to try to correct the problem but more struggles were ahead. That same year, she was diagnosed with a seizure disorder which, along with a childhood stroke, led to speech delays, short-term memory loss, motor planning difficulties, and developmental delays.
Despite her extensive medical history, Simas was a young woman full of life and a passion for living. When Simas turned 20, her parents sought out Helen Woodward’s Therapeutic Riding Program to not only assist with her unique challenges but to also give her a sport to fuel her passion.
Established in 1983, Helen Woodward Animal Center’s unique equine therapy was developed to assist children and adults with a variety of special needs from cerebral palsy, to Down’s syndrome and autism, to stroke recovery and learning disabilities. Students ride specially-trained horses with certified instructors in weekly sessions to develop increased balance and muscle control, improve concentration and short-term memory, and enhance their confidence and self-esteem.
Simas was a perfect candidate for the program and, as it turned out, an ace student. She excelled in all of her classes and in July, at the Center’s Therapeutic Riding show, she proved she had the makings of a true rider. Simas’ spellbinding display of equine showmanship qualified her to compete in the United Professional Horseman’s Association (UPHA) National Championships.
The UPHA National Competition is a huge honor to any rider, but it comes with its share of expense, including travel to Kansas City where the event was held, and specific required show clothes, boots and riding helmet. Efforts were made to find Simas the appropriate attire within a conservative budget but the affordable boots were not fitting well and it seemed that she would need to borrow a helmet.
Like all Cinderella tales, however, magic happens just in time. Shortly before Simas’departure, Helen Woodward’s Therapeutic Riding Team held a tack sale. Within a bag of horse supplies, donated by Evergate Stables, Program Manager Courtney Mellor discovered a beautiful new riding helmet and a pair of gorgeous Italian riding boots. As all good fairytales go, the helmet fit perfectly and the boots zipped up like they were custom made for her. Simas was officially dressed to the nines to represent the center’s program on a national level.
On Nov. 4, Simas and Mellor flew to Kansas to compete. Through Mellor’s connections, Simas was provided a borrowed horse named Louie from a reputable Kansas City Therapeutic Riding Program. The team arrived at the American Royal complex on Sunday afternoon to practice for the first time on Louie and then it was on to the competition.
Simas soared in phase one of the competition -- placing top 10 and moving on to phase two that evening. The evening’s end was even more extraordinary when Simas was named the top 5th rider in the nation and awarded a $500 scholarship towards her program riding fees.
“We are so proud of Lizzy,” stated Mellor. “She is a determined athlete with an incredible drive. And we are so grateful to Jenn Gates and Evergate Stables for decking her out in gorgeous attire worthy of her win.”
If you would like more information on participating in the program or providing funding support, contact Therapeutic Riding Program Manager Courtney Mellor at (858) 756-4117 x321, go to www.animalcenter.org, or stop by Helen Woodward Animal Center at 6523 Helen Woodward Way, Rancho Santa Fe, 92067. —News release