ORLANDO, Fla. – For many Central Florida nonprofits, location is everything.
It’s where people know how to find them and usually where they can do the most good.
For nearly 20 years, that’s been the case for Freedom Ride Inc.
The organization offers therapeutic horseback riding on property formerly occupied by the historic Ben White Raceway on Lee Road.
Freedom Ride Executive Director Marianne Gray said the location has served them well.
“We’re right in the middle of Orlando. It’s amazing, this peacefulness right in the middle of the hustle and bustle,” Gray said.
Gray said they’ve been able to take advantage of the infrastructure left from the one-time horse track.
“These stalls that we’re using, they were built for the trotters,” Gray said. “They’re cement block stalls so we know these horses are safe during the hurricanes.”
The organization hosts around 80 riders a week of all ages. Many riders have physical disabilities but programs are also offered for mental wellness and for veterans with PTSD.
“There’s a lot of healing that goes on here with the help of beautiful horses. It’s pretty amazing,” Gray said.
One of those riders is Jason Sango. Sango is recovering from a stroke and said the therapy has made a big impact on his mobility.
“I started out where I could barely sit on a horse and now I’m riding with no instructor,” Sango said. “Every week I can feel an improvement here and an improvement here,” Sango said pointing to his right shoulder and hip.
He went on to say he’s even recovered some feeling in his foot.
Karlos Mancilla, 17, was there too. Mancilla has cerebral palsy. His father, Carlos Mancilla, watched as his son made his way around the Freedom Ride arena.
“It’s changed his life,” Carlos Mancilla said. “He’s getting more stable, more strong. We need more places like this.”
For all their success, Gray said Freedom Ride’s days are numbered at the Lee Road location. The nonprofit has been leasing land owned by the City of Orlando. Trotters Park is right next door and plans have been in the works for years to expand onto the Freedom Ride parcel.
“They have been extending our lease here but it’s time for us to move on for many reasons,” Gray said, adding that they have outgrown the 10 acres and there is a waiting list for riders.
“We’ve been growing so quickly and when you have horses and you need more horses, you also need more acres of land.”
After years of looking, those acres were found just down the street.
“It’s 2.4 miles from where we are, that alone is incredible,” Gray said, referring to the 25-acre parcel on nearby Bay Lake.
Gray said the property was being used to board horses but was slated for development.
“The gentleman that owns the property is the angel and hero in all of this. He was going to sell to some developers because the land is so precious,” Gray said, explaining that once he saw the mission at Freedom Ride, he agreed to sell the property to them.
“It is so peaceful and so close to us,” Gray said. “The location is paradise for what we do.”
Freedom Ride is in the middle of a capital campaign to raise funds for property improvement. For more information, go to their website FreedomRide.com