While spending three hours in a car several times a week might not sound appealing to many high schoolers, Isabel Ernst is not your typical ninth-grader. Three years ago, the young equestrian helped found Give a Buck for Special Equestrians, a Wellington-based volunteer organization dedicated to raising funds for therapeutic riding programs designed to help those with physical, developmental, or emotional disabilities.
Ernst, who herself has been riding for nine years, was part of a small group of equine enthusiasts who wanted to share their joy of horsemanship with those facing difficult life challenges. She and co-founder Sissy DeMaria began their charity with the simple idea of donating whatever money they could afford to certain programs each month, and it soon expanded into larger-scale fundraisers.
Ernst with Double Dutch, one of her horses.
“There’s so much money that goes into the equestrian world that we knew there had to be a way for us to give back to what we love to do,” said Ernst. “So we started with the idea that every month when you go to pay your board for your horses, you donate as much as you can, whether that’s a penny, a dollar, or fifty dollars, and that money would go straight to the programs we help support. After about a year, we realized more income would come from big fundraisers and selling merchandise at shows, so we began to focus our attention on that.”
Today, Give a Buck’s two signature fundraisers are the Pony Derby Classic and Neverland Gala in the winter and spring. This past season, the charity was able to raise over $40,000 for its therapeutic barn partners, including Special Equestrians of the Treasure Coast in Vero Beach, Good Hope Equestrian Center in Homestead, and Stable Place in Davie. Ernst herself presented the program director of Special Equestrians of the Treasure Coast with a $10,000 check earmarked towards scholarships for special needs riders.
“We also have an extensive young ambassador program which helps spread the word about giving back,” said Ernst, the president of Give a Buck’s Young Ambassadors group. “When we started Give a Buck, I realized there’s so many kids in the riding world who either didn’t know about these therapeutic riding programs or realize how much money it costs to have a horse, so I asked myself, ‘How can I get these kids involved in giving back to the community?’”
Ernst was able to find other children and teens who shared her passion, and her Young Ambassadors group has now grown to over a dozen members who focus on supporting the organization and raising awareness of its mission through volunteer efforts. Though Ernst lives in Vero Beach and has to make an hour-and-a-half road trip to Wellington and back several times a week, she uses the time she spends in the car to organize ways to give back.
The charity’s volunteers recently participated in a series of events where they visited therapeutic riding centers and assisted special needs riders.
“We do whatever they need us for, whether that’s spending time side-walking with the students or helping tack up the horses,” Ernst explained.
Ernst (left) and fellow Young Ambassador Sophie North (right) volunteering at Special Equestrians of the Treasure Coast.
Aside from the physical benefits the students receive from riding the horses, such as strengthening their muscles, it also helps improve their balance, coordination, and state of emotion.
“One time I went to volunteer and one of the girls was in a wheelchair. It was only her first or second session, and she was able to get the feeling of walking just by being on the horse, and the emotion on her face was so rewarding,” said Ernst. “There aren’t even words for how happy she was.”