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Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo begins with the Chisolm Challenge -- and an arena full of smiles

"When she gets on the horse, everything else just goes away and that smile comes back on her face," said Equest's Sarina Dalton.

FORT WORTH, Texas — The Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo gets underway this week, with the promise that it always has something for everyone. The first two days of events, and the smiles of a 12-year-old named Elisa Doyle, offer ample proof of that.

Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday marked the return of the Chisolm Challenge to John Justin Arena. Children and adults competed in events specifically for people with disabilities. 

Events included English Equitation, Western Equitation, RANCH riding, showmanship, barrels, pole bending, drill team, and driving and trail. 

And the 2023 event also featured first-time attendee Elisa Doyle. We found her waiting patiently in the arena stands with her mom, Karla Contreras.

"It just kind of gives her, sort of like a purpose," Contreras said of her daughter.

Elisa has epilepsy -- her life complicated by seizures. But when they found therapeutic riding programs, first in the Special Olympics, and now with the Dallas-area equine therapy program Equest, Contreras said her daughter blossomed.

"She looks forward all week long. 'Mommy I want to see my horsey.' 'Mommy I want to go see my horsey,'" Karla Contreras said.

Elisa is one of dozens of students working with the equine therapy organization Equest. The event featured hundreds of riders from multiple therapeutic riding programs. 

The Chisolm Challenge is their chance to shine. And, as Elisa boarded her horse with the help of Equest instructor Sarina Dalton, she couldn't hide her wide smile.

"That smile that you saw, it kind of sticks," her mom said. "It's kind of her happy place. Her happy place definitely."

"And seeing even just a smile on their face when they first step on a horse is absolutely amazing," Dalton said. "And seeing the connection they build with the horses, absolutely incredible."

Credit: WFAA

A smile even bigger than usual at the Tuesday event. Because the 12-year-old, smiling broadly in the saddle as she cantered and trotted her horse across the arena floor, got first place in her heat.

"She always impresses me," her mom said, offering her own substantial smile as well. "I'm so proud of you," she told Elisa.

"When she gets on the horse, everything else just goes away and that smile comes back on her face," said Dalton. "They learn to overcome any obstacles they might be challenged with. As well as pursue dreams and achieve their new goals."

Credit: WFAA

For her efforts, and the efforts of her mom and her instructors, Elisa received a blue ribbon and a championship belt buckle engraved with the Chisolm Challenge logo.

That created yet one more radiant smile.

Which could be argued, might be the biggest prize of all.

Credit: WFAA

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