Isabella Park was probably about 4 when she first got on a horse.
That’s not surprising considering her whole family, thanks to their mother Suzanne, works to rehab and rescue horses at their Bit O Hope ranch in Englewood. Suzanne Park began the operation years ago when the first of her four children were not much older than toddlers.
It started small and grew. Now, with the help of a lot of volunteers and donors, there are 18 horses at the ranch — all in various stages of being trained or recovering from neglect, minor injuries or just given up by owners who could no longer take care of them.
Isabella, the youngest of the four siblings, is the one who has risen to the rank of trainer, riding coach, show veteran — all with a business acumen that surely makes her mother proud.
But, she almost walked away from it all.
‘”I started giving lessons when I was 15 or 16,” Isabella said as she took a rare moment to relax in the shade of a tree next to the 14 stalls that hold most of the horses. “I saw stuff kids were struggling with just as I did when I started. I just wanted them to get to know what to do.”
Isabella started her show career in high school and got more serious as she became more successful.
She won a regional championship in the Interscholastic Equestrian Association competition where riders draw the name of someone else’s horse out of a hat to ride. It’s a way to seriously judge what a rider can do since they are on a horse they have no experience with.
She became so adept at showing that she accepted an invitation to ride on the Long Island University equestrian team. And, when she went to college, she took two of her best horses with her.
But college didn’t work out. “I wasn’t learning anything that would help me in what I wanted to do with horses,” she said.
So she made a deal to loan her horses to LIU for four years and she came home.
“When I got home I really wanted away from horses. I looked for a job and just tried to stay out of showing and training.”
But, it didn’t work.
“I guess once you get horses in your blood, that’s it,” she smiled.
In addition to helping adults become better riders and working with problem horses, she now has about 20 students who come out to get tips or refine their skills.
“About seven of them are really serious about showing. And five or those will probably be in the running for year-end high point at the Punta Gorda Horseman’s Association,” she said, noting she had a show this past weekend in Punta Gorda.
“We show just about every weekend either at Punta Gorda or Fox Lea (in Venice).”
The pace keeps Isabella almost overwhelmed at times as she also works for her family’s landscaping business.
“We have one account where we do 160 homes in one day,” she said.
The pace has left her with no time to show horses herself. But, she hopes, that could change some day.
Even with help from adult and student volunteers and groups like Move Mountains kids from North Port and the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office Activities program that has students come out to help clean the barn, care for the horses and learn how to take care of them, there is little time for fun stuff.
“Eventually I may want to just have horses that I can get ready for shows and relax a little bit,” she said, eyeing 18 horses waiting at the fence to be fed.
For now, she’s open to taking more students and helping them learn as much as she can.
And, she dutifully mentions that Bit O Hope — which sells horses when their training is finished and has a leasing program for riders — always needs donations and help to feed and care for so many horses.
If you need a riding lesson, you can dial 941-929-4922 for Isabella. But, it’s better to text. She’s very busy.