By GEOFF FOX
Nataleigh Monterio put on her pink riding helmet and light-up cowboy boots.
“I’ve been riding horses my entire life,” said Nataleigh, 9. “Sometimes they answer questions. Miss Patty will ask them yes or no questions and they shake their head yes.”
Nearby, her classmate, Xavier Cebollero, 8, watched with envy. With a cast covering his left forearm after a tumbling accident, he was unable to ride that day.
“Some of the horses are a pain, because they don’t listen to me,” he said. “They speak horse.”
Nataleigh and Xavier, both third-graders, are two of HOPE Ranch’s 125 students. About 60 percent of the students are on the Gardiner Scholarship for students with certain special needs; Natalie and Xavier have diagnoses on the autism spectrum. The scholarship is managed by Step Up For Students.
“Some of these kids have been bullied and abused,” said Jose Suarez, who has run the school since 2005 with Ampy, his wife of 34 years. “They don’t trust people and adults.”
The school’s horsemanship classes are taught by Patty Anderton – known to the students as “Miss Patty.” Anderton used to run a business in Odessa, Florida, where she taught clients the finer points of horse riding. About six years ago, Jose Suarez asked her to help out at the school temporarily. It turned into a full-time job and Anderton hasn’t looked back.
“I love it here,” she said. “It’s much different. My clients before were usually adults and I wanted something different.”
As Anderton spoke, Nataleigh navigated Georgie around a figure eight pattern and had her trot at different speeds.
“The horses help bring them out of their shell,” she said. “A lot of them haven’t had the greatest life in school. They don’t trust a whole lot and the horses help bring that trust out.”
While horse riding is a popular activity, none of the students automatically get to ride every week.
“Horsemanship is a class, but riding is a privilege,” Jose Suarez said. “They have to have their grades and behavior under control. They have to earn it.”
The Suarezes opened the ranch in 2005, originally for troubled children. By then the couple, who have two adult children, had been caring for foster children for two years. Not long after opening the ranch, the mother of an autistic child approached them about expanding the program.
Ampy Suarez couldn’t say no.
“We want to give them opportunities that they never would have had otherwise,” she said.
It seems to be working. A discussion Nataleigh and Xavier had in the horse arena demonstrated genuine enthusiasm among the students.
“I just love this school, in general,” Nataleigh said. “When I was five or six, I went to a completely different school. When I was really young, I was really picky, though. They didn’t have a barn; they didn’t have any animals.”
“In Miss Patty’s class, we get to go on field trips. We went to We Rock the Spectrum in Pinellas County,” Xavier said, referring to the Clearwater gym with equipment designed to help children with sensory processing disorders. “We also went to The Brick University (an art school for children). We got to make a plane and a cupcake out of LEGOs.”
Xavier wasn’t done talking, but Natalie’s excitement prevented her from staying quiet.
“One week every year, we have Spirit Week,” she said.
Xavier started to speak again.
“Xavier, calm yourself,” she said. “Then, on a specific day, we have Character Day.”
“That’s when we get to dress up like any character,” he said.
“Yes, thank you, Xavier,” she said. “I went as a HOPE Ranch Learning Academy fairy. I had a little skirt and fairy wings, and it was really cute.”
“I was a mixture of super heroes,” he said. “I had a Captain America mask and a Superman cape.”
“He was Super Ultra Xavier!” she said.
As the school continues to grow, Jose Suarez said it will expand. He expects 200 students next year.
“We’ll need to beef up our infrastructure and maybe open another campus,” he said.
Suarez attributed the school’s growth to word-of-mouth advertising among parents of children with special needs, as well as a Google arrangement that drives Internet browsers to HOPE Ranch’s website.
“I’m starting to get requests from across the nation,” he said. “I recently got a call from Wisconsin. They said, ‘If that’s the right school, we’ll move.’”
Reach Geoff Fox at firstname.lastname@example.org.