Bonita Springs – A drive down the dusty end of East Terry in Bonita Springs yields a piece of Florida not shared by everyone, yet very much part of the landscape, Providence Equestrian Center. Horses and Florida have a long history. Most often, the white fences and rolling greens of Ocala come to mind, not the Bonita Springs neighborhood riding center that produces national horse show winners.
Amanda Cassese is such a winner. Just as the interview began, a young rider elegantly slid from her mammoth horse to surprise Cassese with a bear hug.
“We have not seen each other in a while,” Cassese explained as the rider returned skillfully to her horse. “I just returned from in-patient treatment for post-concussion syndrome.”
Casual and modest with a smile that lights up a dark day describes Cassese. Her best friend is Mariah, the pony she first received as a child and that has the temperament for the children with autism that 19-year old Cassese currently trains. Together Mariah and Cassese won the Marshall & Sterling League National High Point Pony Jumper Championship in 2009.
When asked about future dreams, Cassese smiled, “I want a house with a center courtyard for Mariah.”
According to her friend, Amy Opteyndt, 19, “Amanda is the strongest person I know, not only physically but mentally. She never gives up on anything; always finding a way around any obstacle. Thanks to Amanda, I am no longer afraid of horses.”
Cassese is already overcoming obstacles to reach her dreams. A student at Florida Gulf Coast University, Cassese proved her friend right. She lost her junior and senior year of high school from what she calls “an ordinary fall” in November 2009 while riding a horse that stopped at a fence. That ordinary fall led to neck and spine injuries and concussion symptoms that have plagued her since, including bouts of unexpected paralysis that did not stop her. She graduated with her senior class and continued at Florida Gulf Coast University where she currently is majoring in psychology. She still suffers from post-concussion syndrome; she’s had no paralysis for a year.
She turned pro at the age of 18, after scoring 11th in the nation, the first person in Southwest Florida to go to Intercollegiate Equestrian Association Nationals at the age of 17. “At that event, I selected a horse from a hat and went on in to jump,” Cassese said.
After years winning national horse shows, most recently winning her division at the Marshall & Sterling League Nationals in 2011 in Saugerties, New York, she is moving into the training and entrepreneurial aspects of horsemanship. She coached a young 4H rider, Morgan Mueller, who went on to place second at the 4H Regional Finals in Mississippi in July 2011. Cassese currently owns eight horses counting her beloved Mariah. While Providence Equestrian is a family business, Cassese is building her own income stream buying and selling horses, training horses as well as giving riding instructions.
“When I am on my horse, we move as one. We transcend anything that came before or will follow and are in that moment when my horse and I each know what to expect. With the slightest movement, my horse knows the command. You have to know the language of horses. They have one brain to engage in repetition; their ability to learn is within three seconds. I seem to have an innate ability to communicate commands even with unknown horses. That’s why I’m called the ‘horse whisperer.’”
Cassese credits her equestrian activity and horses as her “therapy” even though concussions from a youth “living on the edge” continue to haunt her life. She has no fear, ever.
Cassese is a coach for the center’s Interscholastic Equestrian Association (IEA) team of middle and high school students. She is also a coach for the FGCU equestrian team of about 30 members that practices at the Providence Equestrian Center.
“Sometimes we have shows and special benefits to raise money for our organization, including bake sales,” Cassese said. “During the summer, though, most of the members leave the local area.”
That beautiful smile is not just for friends. Cassese also models occasionally with assignments that most often relate to her equestrian activities. This is a busy young woman, building for her future as a college student and working at part-time jobs that include: horse trainer, riding instructor and model.