Meet the 89-year-old horse whisperer for the Pinellas program

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Hourly Correspondent

Mary “Snakey” Urquhart has directed the Horses for Handicapped Foundation in Pinellas County since 1981. The program offers recreational horseback rides for children and adults with autism spectrum disorders, cerebral palsy and post-traumatic stress disorder . “It gives them the physical exercise they don’t want to do,” says Urquhart, a retired teacher who turns 89 this month. The program was started by Gene and Pat Harris of Largo through the Kiwanis Club of Seminole and its foundation. It is based solely on donations.

Jane Savitski is a volunteer, but she also rides a bicycle in therapy. She has multiple sclerosis. “It works on my strength, stamina and balance,” she says. “I used to use a cane and now I usually don’t use a cane anymore. “

The program needs volunteers, but Urquhart is asking that they be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, wear a mask and follow other safety protocols.

During her morning ritual of feeding the eight foundation horses, Urquhart spoke with the Tampa Bay weather.

What does horseback riding do for people?

Just (give) an appreciation of the world. I mean you can take a little one that’s autistic and running around, doesn’t seem to know what to do. … He rides a horse, everything calms down. He sits there proud and happy and looks around, and the world is at peace.

When does the program take place?

The riding program for the disabled (in part) is on Saturday mornings from 8 to noon. And we have special assigned positions and we are very full so far. We have a waiting list. …

During the week after school, when the children (volunteers) come out of their respective schools, they come to clean the stalls and groom the horses.

… They have the privilege of learning to ride a horse. They are taking lessons and we will also take them to a horse show.

Mary “Snakey” Urquhart, left, collects saddles and upholstery with volunteer Meghan Harry, from Largo, before attending a recreational horseback riding lesson at the Horses for Handicapped Foundation of Pinellas County in Seminole. [TIMES 2020] [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Horses are fascinating animals. In past interviews you have passed on a quote attributed to Winston Churchill.

“The exterior of a horse is good for the interior of a man.”… You can be all tense and upset and everything and you go out, start working with a horse and start loving the horse, and so forth. calms down, everything becomes calm. And you can reason again.

Horses have different personalities, don’t they? What kind are you looking for?

They have different personalities, different walks, different ways of moving. But we want one who is very balanced and calm, very calm, who enjoys working with children.

How do you judge this?

We are going to interview the horse. We do. You just go where they are, there to the rescue or whatever, and just walk up to the horse, talk to them, (see) if they let you touch them or stroke them, lead them, whatever. . You just have to look at them to see how they react to their surroundings and everything in between.

What’s the secret to learning to ride a horse?

Our girls and boys start bareback, so that they learn how the horse moves below them, so that they feel comfortable up there. It is essential. If you are in the saddle a lot, you may find yourself relying on the saddle. It may or may not fit your particular background, so it can be quite uncomfortable. But bareback, I think you learn basic balance, you learn not to be afraid, and you just have fun.

You bought your daughter a horse long before the program started and used it to train 4-H Club members and Girl Scouts to care for and ride horses. Did you grow up having a horse?

Yes, when I was a kid my dad convinced my mom that he needed a horse to keep the mule team in the backyard (in Farmington, Missouri). I don’t know how he balanced that out, but yeah, I had a good old mare that I shared with the family. (A horse kicks the stall door several times.)… It’s Dexter over there. He said, “Feed me first!” … I am the prettiest. Feed me! “

How did you get the nickname Snakey?

Don’t hurt my snakes (his mantra to volunteers). They keep rats out of the barn and rats are pests. They carry germs to us, they carry diseases to horses. There’s our map (wall) for kids to learn, the rattlesnakes and the coral snake. …

If they find a snake, they must tell me before they approach it. …

When I started in Girl Scouts with my daughter, you had to have a Girl Scout handle. You had to have a nickname, so the kids don’t always have to call you Mrs. Urquhart like you have to in school. Because I’d pick up the snakes and say it’s a black runner, or say it’s a sweet little corn snake, or maybe I have one in my pocket, who knows? So I have this handle. … No one knows me through Marie. They know me through Snakey.

For four decades, Marie "Snake" Urquhart ran the Horses for Handicapped Foundation of Pinellas County, which offers recreational horseback rides for children and adults with disabilities. [ TIMES 2020]
For four decades, Mary “Snakey” Urquhart led the Horses for Handicapped Foundation in Pinellas County, which provides recreational horseback riding for children and adults with disabilities. [ TIMES 2020] [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Is it still fun?

Oh, yeah, I still appreciate it. I get up and do it every morning.

Does It Keep You Healthy?

I would say so. I’m still here.

Are you still driving?

I can if I have the time. But if there’s time left, that’s a big question.

For more information, visit www.pinellashforh.org.


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