By: Leanne Cobb
“To ride on a horse is to fly without wings.” -Anonymous
If anyone needs reassurance that kids in 2023 are as hardworking and motivated as generations before, Sitara Veerabagu is that reassurance. Veerabagu has been a Girl Scout for 10 years, is an accomplished oboe player, rides horses competitively and trains under Clemson University’s Equestrian coach, serves as Vice President of Beta Club and is active in student council and Spanish Honor Society, and began taking college courses at Tri-County Technical College, all as a sophomore at Wren High School. However, the most impressive bullet point on her resume may be her commitment to promoting awareness of Equine Assisted Riding Therapy through her involvement with the SHARE Therapeutic Riding program.
At seven-years-old, riding on a sweet horse named Soupy, Veerabagu never imagined Soupy, and her connection to him, would inspire her to make the healing power of horses the way she brings joy and hope to others. Veerabagu found her passion in going to the same barn every day whether to clean stalls or groom horses—anything to be with the horses, even if she couldn’t ride.
“I worked birthday parties and summer camps to earn riding lessons. It was hard work, but I enjoyed being there in the summers, after school, and on weekends,” says Veerabagu.
At eleven years old, Veerabagu met Lisa Hartman, Director of SHARE Therapeutic Riding Program. Hartman taught Veerabagu about equine therapy and how horses calm and heal individuals with special needs, those who have experienced trauma, or have stressful jobs such as law enforcement, firefighters, and nurses.
“It felt like a win-win to give these older and retired show horses a job and attention from people who cherish them. When people first arrive for a therapy session, they may not be smiling, but when they leave, they are happy, smiling, and have hope driving them forward. You can see they are lighter than they were when they arrived,” says Veerabagu.
Veerabagu’s favorite thing about equine therapy is seeing others make the same connection with horses that she makes every day. The experience that inspired her to share the benefits and joys of equine therapy with a wider audience was when a rider told her that the happiest hours of her week were the hours spent with the horse.
“Seated on an intelligent animal that understands and is sensitive to your needs is an incredible confidence builder and fine tunes one’s emotional sense of well-being,” notes Veerabagu.
Veerabagu immediately began researching ways to promote the benefits of equine therapy to more people and quickly realized there was limited awareness of equine therapy within the general public. Determining the best starting point was with a website, she sought Hartman’s approval to initiate the development of a website. Once approved, she was appointed as a website project designer and was approved for the silver award by the Girl Scouts Cadette of Anderson Troop 1127 to build the SHARE website. When COVID hit and schoolwork decreased, it was a blessing for Veerabagu because it allowed time to work on the website. She worked with a web developer and after innumerable months, days, and hours of fieldwork gathering data, getting public feedback, customer and client reviews, and talking to various associations, perseverance paid off and the website was completed.
“The experience of building this website helped me learn skills in time and team management, flexibility, and public speaking,” says Veerabagu.
Even after receiving the silver award, Sitara continues working on the site. After the website crashed, Sitara rebuilt the site with a new domain company without professional assistance.
Veerabagu’s gold proposal as a Senior Girl Scout has been approved for spreading equine therapy awareness locally and to communities beyond Anderson through public speaking and a badge program to teach Girl Scouts about equine therapy. Additionally, Veerabagu spreads awareness by volunteering with the Area 14 Special Olympics Equestrian Program and Clemson Life with SHARE.
“I meet with Lisa at least once per week so we can work on flyers or events for Special Olympics, or I volunteer to help with lessons or work on development of the website,” says Veerabagu.
When not working with SHARE, Veerabagu spends 3 hours, 5-6 days per week training for competitive horseback riding. On average, she competes at least one weekend per month.
Horseback riding is a sport,” she says. “There is no off season.”
She competes with her horse, Uno, in the age 15-17 equitation division and jumps 2 feet, 9 inches, and 3 feet deep in the hunter division.
“Uno has been a real challenge for me because he is used to accurate and demanding professionals as opposed to a junior who is still learning with him, but with that challenge he has shown me a stronger side of myself that I did not know I had in me,” notes Veerabagu.
Veerabagu considers herself to be competitive, primarily with herself, because every day she tries to be better than the day before. Her hard work has paid off in the form of many blue ribbons, however they are not prominently displayed in her home.
“My mom reinforces having fun while learning and improving, meeting new people, making friends, and having new experiences. She reminds me to think about all of my blue ribbons sitting in trash bags because blue ribbons are not the purpose of this,” Veerabagu says.
Blue ribbons or not, Veerabagu is winning in the most important area of life—helping others. Having already learned that life is about doing good for others and finding joy in it, and she will continue doing it in her future.
“I’m still thinking about a career, but I know I want a job where I’m helping people.”
For that job, there is no better person than Sitara Veerabagu.