Blake Etzel strutted to the podium at the Big Sky Horse Park with the swagger of an Old West outlaw and the attire to match.

His jet-black cowboy hat sat perched atop his head, shading his face from the warm mid-day sun, and his matching calf-length duster coat fluttered gently in the light breeze as he walked. What tied the look together though was the hulking silver belt buckle, the key piece in Blake's competition ensemble.

"It's like a family heirloom I get to wear," he explained of its origins. The buckle belonged to his great-grandfather.

He wears the buckle every time he rides in an equestrian event like during Thursday's Special Olympics State Summer Games in Missoula. It might be his favorite part about the competition.

Well, except for the horses.

"They listen to whatever you want to talk about," said Blake, a 28-year-old who hails from Lolo. "... I love going fast on them."

Several dozen competitors of all ages gathered at the equestrian fields tucked behind Big Sky High School to ride for medals and fun in a long list of events. Some like barrel racing and pole bending, staples of the traditional rodeo circuit, were timed and scored the same as if Thursday's entrants were world-class cowboys and cowgirls. Others such as stock seat equitation were judged based on directing a horse through various routes and speeds of trot with precision.

For athletes, equestrian activity combines the best parts of Special Olympics — physical activity, competition and inclusion in a team atmosphere — with the therapeutic advantages of horses.

"Because the horse is non-judgmental right?" began Julie Armstrong, a volunteer organizer from Missoula. "The horses seem to make breakthroughs with this population. I think it's that connection they make with that horse, which can be hard to make with people. Sometimes they don't make that connection their entire lives."

"It's pretty indescribable," added Courtney Bruce, a volunteer coach with Missoula's Trotting Horse Therapeutic Riding team and a physical therapy student at the University of Montana specializing in horseback hippotherapy. "It's not just them as an individual team member. They have the horse and they can form a bond with the horse."

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The benefits are both emotional and physical. Riders with autism or sensory processing issues find a connection with another living creature, while those with body or corporeal limitations enjoy the sensation of moving atop such a large and powerful animal.

"The position of the rider on the horse, it's the closest thing that mimics walking if you're not able to walk. They feel that muscle movement," described Nita Kattell, a coach who also sits on the Trotting Horse board of directors.

There's a comfort in the interactions with the animals. Alexis Myers, a 9-year-old from Victor, had an unmistakable fondness for her riding partner Thursday, a docile milky-colored colt named Tazmo.

"You can steer 'em easy, but sometimes they're stubborn," she said with a mischievous grin. "My favorite part was trotting the horse. It's kind of a slow trot. I think we're going to go up to the next speed next week."

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