A Happily Full Plate

06/01/2022 12:06 AM By Joshua
From the Paddock
Catherine Sears
Catherine Sears
Story by Cynthia McFarland • Photos by Joshua Jacobs

A Happily Full Plate

Equine Therapy Instructor Sees Only Ability

As long as Catherine Sears can remember, her life has revolved around horses, so it was a surprise to no one when she made it her career. However, she’s chosen work that has her coloring outside the lines—and loving every minute.

Raised on a Marion County farm, Catherine is a third-generation equine enthusiast and professional. She credits much of what she’s learned about horses to her father, Bobby Sears, a trainer in multiple disciplines and a farrier. Catherine got her first horse—a Welsh pony named Misty—before she was 2. She learned to ride both English and Western and worked as an assistant trainer with her father.

Discovering Equine Therapy

Catherine started teaching riding lessons at the age of 14, which is when she first realized that riding could be therapeutic. “Our farm had a boarder with cerebral palsy; we would put her up on a horse for therapy,” she recalls. “You could see the difference in her and how she communicated after a ride; she was feeling stimulated and feeling the joy. That really struck a chord in me of wanting to pursue equine therapy.”

Showing since she was a young girl, Catherine found the most joy in speed events—barrel racing and pole bending. Her family also had a string of Thoroughbreds, and she was still a teenager when she began accompanying them to the racetrack.

“I had my groom and hotwalker licenses by the age of 16,” she says. “We took our horses to race at Suffolk Downs, Rockingham Park, and Tampa Bay Downs.”

Catherine has been a certified apprentice farrier for 22 years. It’s challenging work in a field that doesn’t boast many women. “It’s a good workout; I don’t have to go to the gym,” says Catherine who does both trimming and shoeing.

Starting at MTRA

Since 1983, Marion Therapeutic Riding Association (MTRA) has served physically, mentally, and emotionally challenged clients, helping them to build independence and confidence through horseback riding. A 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, MTRA is a Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH) Premier Accredited Center.

“I saw a future in equine therapy and how the need for it has expanded. And I became a PATH certified instructor in 2008,” says Catherine. She started at MTRA as an instructor in 2016 and was promoted to program director and equine director in 2018.

MTRA services about 120 client riders each week, from children to adults, in a variety of therapeutic riding programs and has a waiting list of over 100.

“We have 20 horses and a variety of breeds. We have a little bit of everything. Every one of these horses has a special place in my heart, and each one has special qualities that help them serve their purpose,” notes Catherine.

“You’ll see certain riders bond with a particular horse, and it’s magic. The equines empower them; these horses are miracle workers. I’ve seen clients, who won’t speak on their own, speak when they’re sitting on the horse,” says Catherine passionately.

“This is a form of therapy that doesn’t really feel like therapy,” she adds. “We don’t see a rider’s disability. We see their ability and help them achieve the goals they are capable of.”

Although it’s not unusual for her to put in 50 or more hours a week, Catherine loves working with the clients, volunteers, and independent contractor instructors at MTRA. “It’s a mission. We all work together and take care of each other,” she says. “My motto is ‘never stop learning.’ There’s always something you can learn, and you’re cutting yourself short if you think you’re done learning!”
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Musical Artistry

It’s not unusual for the client riders at MTRA to be serenaded with encouragement, as they work with the horses. In addition to her extensive equine skills, Catherine is a talented country singer and independent artist, whose songs are playing worldwide.

In 2011, she released the album, “Life’s Amazing Ride,” which she recorded in Nashville at Beaird Music and in Ocala at Signature Sound Studio. Catherine wrote all the songs herself; the inspirational lyrics tell stories of hope and faith. Her father—also a singer songwriter—sings backup on the album. Her song “Let Fate Dance” made it to #4 on the charts in Italy. In 2013, she won best live performance from the Independent Country Music Association (ICoMA).

“I love writing songs, and I’m not giving up on the dream of music. I’m looking to put out an album based on horses and healing, and I’m hoping to put out a gospel album with gospel favorites and songs I’ve written,” says Catherine.

“You have to choose your direction. I felt the need to do equine therapy, so the music is second to that. If I was signed to a label, I wouldn’t be able to serve the people here at MTRA. When God gives you a talent and you use it, that doesn’t mean you have to be on tour,” she smiles.

Catherine Sears admits her plate is very full, but she sees it as happily full. She wouldn’t have it any other way
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