Written by: Camille Woodhouse / Correspondent via Gainesville.com
The golden-haired, blue-eyed teenager speaks to Denny in hushed tones while running a hand through his coffee-colored locks. He’s a good boy, and he’s going to do great, she says with affection.
She climbs onto his back, and he carries her to the course. It is time for the day’s lessons.
Denny is a buckskin American Quarter horse. His rider is the youngest member of Special Olympics USA team.
On Wednesday, 16-year-old Renee Phifer will travel more than 7,500 miles for her first international Equestrian competition: The Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi. The games will be held March 14-21 at Zayed Sports City Stadium.
“I’ve always liked the competition,” said the sophomore from Santa Fe High School. “I don’t mind what I get as long as I get something out of it, which will be an experience.”
The Special Olympics World Games has been named the largest international event of 2019. More than 7,000 athletes from 192 countries will participate in 24 sports. The U.S. will have 215 athletes from 45 states in 18 of those sports.
Renee is one of six riders representing Team USA. She will compete in three areas: equitation, trails and dressage. The events will take place March 16-20.
In equitation, the judge calls out various maneuvers for the riders to do, such as instructing them to turn, stop, trot and walk. For trails, riders are asked to navigate a series of obstacles, and they must do so in the correct manner.
Dressage is a technical event in which the horse and rider must complete a pattern of movements at different points. The points are letters that are equally spaced throughout the arena.
“Dressage is all on turns, straightness, round circles,” said Betty Gray, Renee’s riding instructor and coach. “Everything is doing something at a letter.”
Renee has high-functioning autism and ADHD, making dressage a challenging task as it requires a great deal of mental work and focus, said her mother, Tara Phifer. But through private lessons at HWalters Dressage LLC in High Springs, she was able to learn it in just four months.
The teen developed a love for horses at a young age. She started riding at age 8 and is a member of Bits & Spurs 4H, a nonprofit horse club in Alachua County. Renee can name and describe nearly every horse at Hi-Time Farm and aspires to own a horse one day.
“I’ve always liked them in books and stuff,” Renee said. “They’re beautiful. And they’re really fun to ride.”
When Renee first applied to compete in the games last July, her application went unanswered. It wasn’t until late August that she received a call.
“It was something like, ‘The other rider backed out. Do you want to do it?’” Phifer said. “This opportunity may not come again. So, we’re gonna go ahead and go for it.”
Renee began training for the competition in October. Her lessons with Gray are two to three times a week at Stirrups ’n Strides Therapeutic Riding Center Inc., a nonprofit organization that provides riding lessons to people with special needs. The center is situated at Hi-Time Farm in Citra, located between Gainesville and Ocala.
Although the games will be her first overseas competition, the Phoenix native has been collecting ribbons for years. At the age of 9, she placed first and second in her first two events in the Special Olympics Florida State Championship. She added two gold ribbons to her resume in a 2018 state competition and was reserve champion, second place, in her first national horse show in Kansas City in November.
“This is her passion,” Phifer said. “She has never shown the endless commitment and compassion toward anything but riding horses. This definitely has been such a boost to her and her confidence, feeling like she’s got something she’s good at, which is empowering.”