By Erika Webb
"I saw a dancing Clydesdale in Pierson," said no one ever -- until May 17.
Fall made a resplendent encore, curtsying with cool breezes beneath intensely blue skies, just in time for the Riding Star Ranch Horse Rescue Tour of the Horses at Pierson Town Park Sports Complex.
Skyy the dancing Clydesdale was celebrating her fifth birthday and she was the entertainment.
Under the direction of renowned horse trainer Sergei Byakin, the crowd-pleasing descendant of the Budweiser Clydesdales performed moves that, given her size and configuration, she shouldn't be able to achieve.
"Skyy is one of only 4,000 Clydesdales in the world and the only one performing at this level," Riding Star's owner Dawn Schmertmann told the crowd, while the magnificent animal showed off her half-passes, Spanish walk, salutes and, finally, a deep bow.
The horse and Mr. Byakin have been working together for only 11 months, but a deep connection is evident.
Last year, Ms. Schmertmann moved the nonprofit horse rescue operation from southwest Florida to Spring Garden Ranch in DeLeon Springs. She acquired Skyy via trade for a carriage. The young horse had skin cancer and fluid in a joint behind her ear.
At the ranch, Skyy was cordial to visitors but what talents and aspirations lay within, the average person couldn't have known. Then she seemed to be hanging around in her stall merely passing the time.
It takes a true horse person to see the unimaginable.
"Once we got her medical needs taken care of she started in with training," Ms. Schmertmann said.
Mr. Byakin, Riding Star's head trainer, is legendary. He was lead equestrian and dressage director at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus where he trained the acrobatic Lipizzaner horses. He has shown in dressage and jumping on the national level in Russia and, in 1983, was champion in dressage at the Central Club of the Army USSR Equestrian Club, according to the KaraKum Akhal-Tekes website.
"Skyy was a trail horse before Sergei," Ms. Schmertmann said. "He's really brought her out."
So much so horse and trainer soon will take to the road to perform at special events.
"She's going to be in Massachusetts at the Big E in September," Ms. Schmertmann said. "We're hoping they take notice."
The Big E is the largest fair in the Northeast -- "a New England extravaganza," which drew its largest crowd ever in 2013 with nearly 1.5 million people in attendance, according to thebige.com.
Skyy demonstrated her newest move, the three-legged pirouette, to huge applause.
"You guys are the first to see her perform like this," Ms. Schmertmann told the audience.
But the accolades have not gone to the gentle horse's head.
Between shows she waited patiently in a paddock, right near the loudspeakers where Deltona DJ Branden Vidal played everything from Sweet Home Alabama to Happy to Romeo and Juliet and announced upcoming events and raffle winners.
Towering above all else, the horse lowered her head agreeably for child after child to pet her.
After her second show, Skyy offered "pony rides" for $10 donations.
"We're hoping to find multiple corporate sponsors for her," Ms. Schmertmann said.
After all, if she's going on tour, she'll need a truck and trailer.
Around 15 vendors displayed wares including beef jerky, pickled and baked food items, purses, Mary Kay products, crafts, orchids and jewelry. Food truck vendors fed attendees.
English and Western riders took to the arena to demonstrate differing techniques and a parade of adoptable horses explained the reason behind the event.
Since relocating to the area a little over a year ago Riding Star has made a difference. Fifteen rescued horses have been adopted and numerous children, including those in foster and group homes, have benefitted from lessons, trail riding and simply interacting with the animals.
Summer and winter camps offer education in horse science and safety, arts and crafts and horse-themed games as well as "lots and lots of riding". School year day and holiday camps also are hosted by the ranch on Lamar Road in Pierson.
Sydney Watson, 11, of Ocala spends a lot of time at Riding Star. Her mother, Manuela Watson, said the girl has a way with horses, and all animals.
Mrs. Watson said for Sydney, the youngest of her seven kids, the ranch is a haven, an outlet for her passion for animals. She thrives there. Next on Sydney's agenda is learning how to barrel race. With several quarter horses in residence at Riding Star, that shouldn't be a problem.
As she led a small, glitter bedazzled horse named Misty into the arena, Sydney said, "She's my best friend."
Unfortunately, attendance and donations at the event weren't what Ms. Schmerttmann hoped for. As a result, she is looking for immediate homes for 25 horses.
The morning after, she took to the organization's Facebook page with a plea:
"We have (and have always had) an open door policy for supporters of Riding Star and encourage you to come visit us anytime to meet the horses and see where the dollars are going. You can even volunteer to help if you want. Please call or text (941) 626-6787 if you have any questions or would like to come by.
"We will still be offering the therapeutic and educational programs, but on a much smaller level.
"I am praying that this plea for help finds someone who believes in what we do and has the means to help the ranch continue to help these poor, innocent horses. We have the heart, soul, want and desire to do this ... it's the lack of money that is crushing us."
Tax deductible financial donations can be made through PayPal at donate@RidingStarRanch.org.
Or check/Cash donations to Riding Star Ranch, 264 Lamar Road, Pierson, FL 32180.