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Horses of a different caliber

A Brooksville group works to turn former harness racers into riding horses.

By BETH N. GRAY
Published November 28, 2006


Debra Sweger, president of the Standardbred Pleasure Horse Organization of Florida, gives training tips Friday using Smokey. The group trains Standardbred horses so they can be ridden, not just raced.
photo
[Times photo: Keri Wiginton]
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BROOKSVILLE - Second careers are commonplace among people who retire to Florida.

Why not for horses, too?

That's exactly what the Standardbred Pleasure Horse Organization of Florida aims to provide.

The Brooksville organization retrains Standardbreds from their first profession as harness racers to a new calling as riding horses.

"We transition them from the track to become pleasure horses," said organization president Debra Sweger, a horse owner and enthusiast for 31 years.

"We are not a rescue organization," she said. "We don't take those injured beyond repair."

Rather, the five or so Standardbreds the group accepts each year are horses that never made it to the track or have outlived their competitive edge in harness racing.

Although Florida's only harness track is in Pompano Beach, harness training facilities abound throughout the state, Sweger said. Owners in the Northeast, where sulky racing is big sport, send their trotters and pacers for training in the Sunshine State's year-round good weather.

Organized in 1997 with only four members, the organization initially matched trainers with pleasure horse enthusiasts who wanted to add a Standardbred to their stables. It was a modest undertaking.

"So many Floridians don't even know about the breed," Sweger said. "The Amish use them for buggies. They've learned they have really good temperaments and can handle traffic. They're not just a race horse that's going to run off with you. They can be trained because they're so intelligent."

Accustomed to close wheeling on a race track, they're especially maneuverable as a pleasure ride, she added.

They're tall horses, the breed developed from Thoroughbreds, Morgans and Norfolk Trotters, so they are not necessarily suited for a child. Sweger's 16-year-old Belle, a former runner at New Jersey's famous Meadowlands, is 15.3 hands high.

From staging bake sales in the early years to fund the printing of promotional materials, the organization has rocketed into a training program with a bequeath from James B. Robinson of DeLand.

"He left a substantial amount of money in his will. It was money sent from heaven," said Sweger, declining to reveal the amount. "Because of this one donation, we have a program."

That program is retrofitting the horses from harness to saddle.

Most of the horses that come to the organization are donated by trainers, who can take a tax deduction by giving a horse to the duly incorporated nonprofit. On occasion, the organization buys a horse, which can cost as much as $800, Sweger said.

But the big cost is in the work that comes next.

"We pay up to $500 a month for each horse to be retrained," she said. "We have had some horses in the program for one year. The shortest time we experienced was two to three weeks. We had one horse that was saddle trained the next day. We rode him for two weeks. The woman who bought him was an experienced equestrian and finished him."

Finishing involves teaching the animal to canter, basic dressage such as ordering the horse to stop with the rider's seat, to move off pressure from the rider's legs and feet, and basic communication between horse and rider.

Robin Hart of Brooksville is the organization's Western trainer. A horse trainer since the age of 18, Hart, now 36, said of her endeavors for the organization: "I am reprogramming. Fortunately, they've already been programmed to start and turn on a track. My position is to train them from being in harness."

She puts a saddle on their back, adds a girth and over time puts weight in the stirrup and finally in the saddle, just sitting there.

"After they're comfortable with that," Hart said, "we just go into turning, bigger and bigger circles. Then we go to walking and turning. Slowly and surely, we go to a trot or canter. Some of them do not transition well to a canter. But a lot of people like to walk and trot."

Hart has worked for a year with a horse named Blackjack, making him a pricey enterprise for the organization.

"He is doing wonderful," Hart said. "He is just not personable; he's not lovey-dovey. He is a one-on-one horse. If somebody would give him a week or two, they would fall in love with him. He is a wonderful, solid horse with wonderful work ethics. He takes a rider and goes. I see his potential for being such a good horse for somebody."

Regardless of the organization's training investment in a Standardbred, it sells each for $1,500. The aim is to get good representatives of the breed out on the trail and in the ownership of pleasure riders, both horse and rider becoming ambassadors of the organization.

It advertises finished mounts on its Web site, hands out fliers at trail rides and horse clinics, and posts notices in feed stores.

The organization has about 60 members throughout the state, who pay $15 annual dues, which entitles them to clinics, campouts, trail rides, a poker ride every April, literature and an annual luncheon meeting.

The buyer of a retrained horse becomes an automatic member.

If he or she doesn't attend events, the organization does a followup call to make sure that the purchase is a happy one for horse and owner, Sweger said.

Most buyers come from within a 100-mile radius of Brooksville, but some are as far away as the rest of the East Coast of the United States.

The organization is governed by a board of 17 directors, mainly from Brooksville and Leesburg. The only paid employees are the trainers.

Beth Gray can be reached at graybethn@earthlink.net.

[Last modified November 28, 2006, 07:16:42]


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