Sara “Happy” Waterman likes basketball, bowling and running track, but her first love is on display each January at Will Rogers complex.
That’s where the 22-year-old from Dallas showcases her horsemanship skills during the Chisholm Challenge, an annual event that signals the beginning of the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo.
“This is her sport,” said Happy’s mother, Kelly Waterman.“She wants to get out there and compete.”
Happy, who was born with Down syndrome, spends many hours practicing so she can compete in the riding events for equestrians with disabilities. On Monday, riders competed in an American Quarter Horse Show event. The Chisholm Challenge continues Tuesday and Wednesday.
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Some 240 equestrians with disabilities from 13 therapeutic horseback riding centers in North Texas are participating in the competition, which is in its 15th year.
The challenge helps riders with special needs build their self-esteem. Riders ages 8 and up have to maneuver and understand a 1,200-plus pound animal in front of judges.
“These kids struggle with different things daily,” said Jessica Harrod, show manager for the Chisholm Challenge. “They want to compete just like everybody else.”
Harrod said the Stock Show donates use of the arena and horse stalls for Chisholm Challenge. The event relies on numerous volunteers.
“We get paid with lots of smiles and hugs,” Harrod said.
It is not uncommon to find family members or friends crying happy tears.
“There is no other show like it,” said Dwayne Wheeler, president of the Chisholm Challenge board, adding that participants have personal stories of perseverance and triumph.
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“There are literally scores of stories,” Wheeler said.
Happy, who has been competing at the Chisholm Challenge since she was about 12, works part time at an eyeglasses company. She also competes in the Special Olympics.
“I think she is more excited about Chisholm Challenge than Christmas,” her mother said.
She said Happy, who has earned many ribbons through the years, thrives with competition. She said Happy’s body language often reveals what she is thinking during competition.
“She wants to nail it,” Kelly Waterman said.
Happy, who trains with the ManeGait Therapeutic Horsemanship program in McKinney, started this year’s competition with some early triumphs. Happy took third place in Western Pleasure and second place in Western Showmanship while riding a horse named Scooter.
Later, she posed for pictures her trainer and friends from MainGait. They cheered her performance.
“Happy is the bomb,” they said, prompting a smile.