By Britney Grover
Most horse lovers will attest to the therapeutic effects of just being around a horse. For some with special needs, those effects mean so much more — they can be genuinely healing. That’s why Sissy DeMaria and Give Back for Special Equestrians raise money for therapeutic riding programs to provide scholarships to children and adults with physical, developmental or emotional disabilities.
“I was approaching a milestone birthday and began giving a lot of thought to how I would like to see the next 20 years of my life and career play out,” Sissy said. With a successful public relations career and three daughters, she knew it was time to give back. “While I had been involved with a number of nonprofits over the years, none really spoke to my soul. Then a horse trotted into my life … I fell in love with an off-the-track chestnut Thoroughbred named Jazz Fest Weekend, or Jazz Man as he was known at the barn. I was so grateful to have such a nice, gentle horse. He was my own therapy, calming me after stressful days at the office. One day I was trail riding alongside his stablemate and owner, a 10-year-old girl, Isabel (Izzy) Ernst. And the idea came to me.”
Building on the idea from a client who asked buyers to consider making a charitable donation with their real estate purchase, Sissy thought up asking horse owners to donate to special equestrians with each monthly board payment — “as little as a buck or as much as they could,” and Give a Buck for Special Equestrians was born.
“Izzy and I began with a group of young girls from our barn and on the first Saturday of the month, which we dubbed Pony Express Saturdays, we visited local barns armed with proverbial dangling carrots, passed out donation cards and told horse owners in Vero Beach about our cause,” Sissy said. Those girls became the first Young Ambassadors, children and teens from 7 to 17 who volunteer and help promote the charity.
From its beginnings in Vero Beach, the cause quickly spread throughout Florida through social media. Joined as co-founders by Izzy and Dr. Heather Kuhl, Give a Buck began offering merchandise with donations, and sponsored a Pony Derby Classic at the Winter Equestrian Festival. The derby, which benefited Give a Buck, was the big boost they needed to really get the charity going.
“After the first few years we were able to approach grand prix show jumper champion and trainer Jimmy Torano, who had been a childhood friend of mine, to see if he would join our board,” Sissy said. “Jimmy’s involvement has been a game changer. He introduced us to his friend Georgina Bloomberg, who has helped pave the way for our success and where we are today.”
As the charity grew, the name was changed to Give Back for Special Equestrians. “We initially gave the money we raised to partner stable programs in Miami, Naples, Wellington and Georgia, and there were not many restrictions on how they could use it — whether to repair the barns, shoe the horses or provide a scholarship for a deserving special needs rider,” Sissy said. “We then streamlined our mission. Now, we give money earmarked to therapeutic stables in Florida and New York with a caveat that the money must be used to provide therapeutic horseback riding scholarships for children and veterans. As horse lovers want to pay forward all of the love and joy that horses have brought into our lives to those facing some of life’s most difficult challenges.”
Fundraising efforts have evolved, too, from asking for donations with board payments to prestigious events. “Today our main fundraising events are made up of luncheons at the Hampton Classic, private cocktail receptions at the homes of noted equestrians and an annual gala in March during the Winter Equestrian Festival,” Sissy shared. Olympic dressage rider Robert Dover and his partner, Robert Ross, hosted a soiree at their home in December. “We’ve been fortunate to have the support of corporate sponsors like Douglas Elliman, Rolls-Royce, Vhernier, Modern Luxury and Gotham magazine and VistaJet.”
Currently an all-volunteer organization, Sissy hopes to continue to expand the charity and someday have a full-time staff. “We are all volunteers, and it is simply awe-inspiring how our board gives of their precious time!” she said. “They are all busy professionals and horse lovers who have banded together for a common love of horses and wanting to pay forward the joy these magnificent animals have brought into our lives. Our goal is to one day find a philanthropic-minded equestrian who will take our organization under their wing to help us grow and be able to share this joy of horses and horsemanship, and the powerful benefits of therapeutic horseback riding.”
For more information, visit giveabuckeq.org.