On Sunday, Ironstone Farm hosted its first Annual Barbara DeNitto Memorial Horse Show for riders with disabilities. About 200 people gathered at the Lowell Street facility for the event – 75 of them volunteers. The cloudy day that turned into rain by mid-morning wasn’t apparently noticed as riders entered the ring astride Ironstone’s horses with perseverance and determination. Spectators huddled - no umbrella’s allowed around horses! - with smiles and encouraging applause at every accomplishment.
Not one complaint was heard.
This is what struck me. People who face adversity every day of their lives come to a day that they have worked hard for weeks to prepare for, after some two months of beautiful days, and they are dealt just about the worst weather possible for that time of year. But they don’t care – there are way too many more important things to care about. Like their performance before their families, the good fortune of their teammates, the comfort of their horse, the camaraderie with their volunteer, the eyes of the kindly judge.
And then there was the food … tasting so much better in the rain! For years Ironstone Founder Dick Donovan maintained, “It never rains at Ironstone Farm” – using terms like “a heavy mist”, “Irish dew”, “liquid sunshine” to describe the obvious. For years Ironstone has stood firm on events being held “in all weather.”
But to be there during a rainy day event such as Sunday’s is indeed testament to the claim that “it never rains” – as the undaunted smiles of riders with physical, cognitive and emotional disabilities permeate the property, supported by the laughter and enthusiasm of their families – just happy to be there and watch their loved one have the opportunity to compete at a sport they never dreamed possible. It is their spirit that defies the weather – and their courage in the face of adversity most of us can’t even imagine that overcomes a simple obstacle like rain.
The glow of the riders’ anticipation and genuine excitement warmed the place so much that the sun might as well have been shining, because that’s what we will remember the next day.
There are a hundred stories that surround this Ironstone event – and many “firsts.”
It was a first annual in memory of Barbara DeNitto, long time instructor at Ironstone who launched and managed the Special Olympics Equestrian Sports in all of Massachusetts from 1988 to 2010 the year she passed away after a courageous battle with cancer. Barbara’s husband, children and grandchildren were in attendance and presented the first perpetual Good Sportsmanship Award in Barbara’s name to B.J Landry of Chelmsford, a young man with Down syndrome who has been riding at Ironstone for more than 20 years.
It was the first drill team performance of DeNitto’s Bandito’s – a group of young adults with disabilities ranging from Down syndrome to brain cancer who had been Barbara’s students for two decades – all riding to a music medley of Back in the Saddle, Happy Trails and Rawhide. Now coaching the team is Jaime Velez, an instructor at Ironstone who hails from Columbia and twice each year brings the Ironstone program model to teach professionals in South America.
Then there are all the little stories … like the young lady who tried so hard to give her medal away to her teammate who didn’t win one; and the 15 year old girl with cerebral palsy – a participant at Ironstone since 2 – who recently returned after surgery for spinal cord fusion; and the young woman with traumatic brain injury after an accident who can now find challenge in equestrian sports. For each rider there is a story to tell – of quiet courage, caring, and undauntable spirit.
The show was also the first on another front. The cook-out was provided by a small group of veterans, organized by Jeff Hall who belongs to an organization called The Mission Continues. The group, Jeff, his wife Anita, Kevin Fahy, Jorge Sanchez and his son, Billy, had never worked together before, but the group turned the expected burgers and dogs into a feast for the 200 guests.
The Mission Continues is a nationwide non-profit organization started by a retired Navy Seal who encourages soldiers returning from serving their country to continue their service – by becoming involved with nonprofits helping those in need. The real story? Jeff met Kevin recently in an insomnia clinic for veterans with PTSD. They took on the “challenge” of feeding Ironstone’s wet crew with over-the-top abundance at exactly the right time – satisfying 200 cold, hungry people in under 50 minutes. Jorge, who lost a leg in the Iraq War, did the cooking with his son beside him and didn’t sit down - or stop smiling - all day. At the end of the day he stated that it was his best time since coming to this area after his return from war. Jeff, who is also retired Navy Seal and now on the board of the Merrimack Valley Food Bank, and the team brought leftovers to the Lowell Transitional Living Center at the end of the day. Their response to Ironstone’s riders’ smiles and families’ enthusiasm was to make the cookout an event in itself, changing the dynamics of the day to an all-inclusive team effort and resulting in a joyful – and meaningful - memory for everyone.
The event was held thanks to Ironstone staff who volunteered their time, chaired by Carolyn Burt. Carolyn sent a plea to Ironstone’s pool of over 200 weekly volunteers for sponsorship support to fund the costs of the new event. With a lead sponsorship from UNICO of the Merrimack Valley, more than $3,000 was contributed from volunteers and their associated relationships. Riders came from throughout the Merrimack Valley, the
North Shore, Greater Boston and Southern New Hampshire.