FALCON HEIGHTS, MINN. — At 10:30 Wednesday morning, Bruce Watt sat aboard Sheik's Ima, a horse he barely knew, ready to perform in the biggest international sporting event of the year.
Dressed in white riding pants, black coat,black boots and black riding hat, Watt strode into the State Fairgrounds Coliseum in Falcon Heights. After seven years of practicing, thered-haired teen-ager who didn't say his first words until he was 3 1/2 had arrived as an equestrian competitor at the International Special Olympics.
Watt, 16, of Mount Airy, didn't disappoint. Before about 200 fans-- including his mother, Nancy, who watched nervously, and father, John, who recorded the moment with a video camera -- Bruce won a bronze medal in the working trail competition. The event requires riders to guide their horses through a course of gates, turns and pauses in aconfined area.
His achievement came in a relatively new sport forSpecial Olympics that was once thought to be too difficult and dangerous for athletes with mental handicaps. Equestrian events require riders to develop a trusting relationship with their horses and work them through intricate routines.
After Bruce received his medal, Nancy Watt was overcome by tears. Bruce, the youngest of six children, had seizures when he was 5 years old. During his years of special education, he got involved in Special Olympics in track and field.
He switched to riding because he said it was fun and it made him work harder. Nancy Watt said his development skills are about two to three years behind his age.
"I never thought it would lead to this when he started," she said.
Karen Scott, a volunteer coach with the Maryland riders, said Bruce "has worked so hard to get where he is. He never gives up."
Bruce, who doesn't say much, was the coolest of thebunch. Asked how he felt during the ride, he smiled and said, "Calm." He was more concerned that his horse ate a leaf from a shrub as he steered around it on the course. The infraction cost him in the scoring.
His performance was part of a trifecta of sorts by Maryland Special Olympian riders. Mary Beth Stone, 18, of Baltimore County, and Cardell Bailey 13, of Talbot County, also won bronze medals.
On Thursday, Bruce Watt earned a silver medal in English equitation, in which riders are judged on their riding position and horse handling. Bailey took a bronze in his division.
Everybody wins at the Special Olympics, which attracted 6,000 athletes from more than 90 countries and 50 states.
Preliminary events divide the athletes into groups of up to eight people with comparable skills. In the final rounds, the top three places earn gold, silver and bronze medals; the rest takeribbons.
Unlike regular Olympic competition, none of the 124 equestrian athletes brought their own horses. They were supplied by the American Quarter Horse Association, which screened the animals to determine those easiest to handle. Riders and horses were matched based on skill level and personality of the athlete with the disposition of the horse.
The competition also differs from the Olympic Games, which includes more aggressive events of cross country and show jumpingwith dressage, in which the horse is controlled in a series of difficult steps and gaits. Special Olympic events feature only one event, Prix Caprilli, which features four jumps over 2-foot obstacles.
Bruce Watt, like many mentally handicapped riders, doesn't have his ownhorse. He rides once a week for an hour in the spring and fall as part of a 4-H program for the handicapped in Carroll.
"He wanted to do it," said his mother, a waitress. "We knew nothing about riding orhorses, he's just practiced with them and worked with them and here we are today."
It wasn't easy at first. John Watt, a C & P telephone worker, recalled Bruce taking a few falls that "woke him up." Learning to post, or moving up and down with the horse took considerable time and many trips riding uphill to get the hang of it, Scott said.
Bruce, who will enter ninth grade in the fall, is proficient enough to call a horse, groom and saddle it, and get it ready to ride. During his riding sessions, he often assists the coaches and teachers.
He's able to keep his horse spaced from others in a judging ring. "He's never jammed up," she said. "Ring savvy -- he's got it. That's ahard thing to teach these kids. He can handle a horse that doesn't want to do what he wants it to do."