Sixteen-year-old Candace loves Purpose Farm, a place where she can set her hurt aside and feel the unconditional love of animals. She says being at the farm makes her happy and helps her release anxiety and stress. That’s exactly what Founder Sandra Seabrook envisioned when she launched the unique mentorship program 14 years ago.
At Purpose Farm, youth with emotional issues stemming from neglect, abuse, bullying, and similar challenges connect with the farm’s animal and human mentors. As they assist with chores and bond with the animals, the children find purpose, experience love, build confidence and gain empathy.
“Most of our animals come from a neglected and abused background, too,” Sandra explains. “These animals, once lonely, hurting, and looking for affection and a friend, are now cared for by children who are often in the same position.”
It’s a powerful combination, and one that volunteer Lynn Fofi says gives the participating youth confidence, skills, and experiences that will support them throughout their lives. “Purpose Farm is working to improve the lives of so many kids that wouldn’t otherwise know that life is good,” she explains. “Simply by giving them opportunities to love and care for animals, they see how they can make a difference in the world.”
Unbridled Thoroughbred Foundation
When Susan Kayne found Fudge Ripple in a North Carolina feedlot, she was headed for slaughter. Aged, emaciated, and blind in one eye, Susan raced to save her. Today, the granddaughter of Triple Crown Winner Affirmed has gained 200 pounds and sports a shiny coat, safe and loved at Unbridled Thoroughbred Foundation’s horse sanctuary.
Stories like Fudge Ripple’s are what prompted Susan to launch the nonprofit, which strives to protect thoroughbreds from cruelty, exploitation, and slaughter. Since its founding in 2004, Unbridled has helped dozens of discarded thoroughbreds find loving homes. But the organization is more than a horse rescue. According to volunteer Caitlin Colwell, it’s also a place of advocacy and education.
Unbridled’s Read to the Rescues program is a great example of how the nonprofit works to bring greater awareness to the plight of thoroughbreds while impacting the lives of youth and equine alike. On summer weekends, young readers line up outside the stalls of Unbridled’s thoroughbreds, eager to share a story with one of the majestic horses. Run by teachers like Caitlin, the program encourages literacy and provides children with the opportunity to learn the stories of the horses they read to. In its first year, more than 400 students participated in the free program.
“As an English teacher, I’m eager to help kids see the power in stories, to uncover truths about systems of power, and to show them the way to be advocates in society for things they care about,” Caitlin explains. “It’s hard to put into words, the way that these horses inspire me, but suffice it to say that being in their presence is breathtaking.” Through Read to Rescues, Caitlin hopes to encourage future generations to advocate for fair and humane treatment of horses, too.
“All you need to do is hear their stories, and if you’re lucky enough to visit Unbridled, look into their eyes,” she says. “You can feel all they’ve been through and know that we must do all that we can to help these horses.”
Pegasus Therapeutic Riding
Founded in 1982, Pegasus Therapeutic Riding Center helps children and adults with disabilities build strength, balance, and confidence atop a horse. Now entering its fourth decade, the California-based equine therapy program serves some 500 clients each year, including children with special needs, adults with developmental disabilities, and military veterans.
The nonprofit’s approach is guided by science. Medical studies suggest therapeutic riding programs provide significant benefits, from physical improvements such as strength, balance, coordination, and mobility, to social and emotional gains like self-confidence, self-control, peer interaction, social skills, and independence. Best of all, the half-hour sessions are free, fun and open to all special needs, and all ages, and offered at no cost to participants.
Make no mistake, this is no pony ride. Participants work hard, developing and strengthening muscles and building core muscles, while at the same time learning trust and confidence as they sit tall in the saddle. It takes an army of volunteers and a deep-seeded commitment to elevating the capabilities of kids and adults to keep the non-profit going. But at Pegasus, the goal is to help clients soar.
Fieldstone Farm Therapeutic Riding Center
Nyla and Miles were dealing with a lot. Their parents were divorced, then their mom was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. A local non-profit organization connected the children with an animal camp at Fieldstone Farm, hoping that the company of horses and other kids facing similar circumstances would help them heal.
Nyla and Miles loved the experience so much that they continued with weekly riding lessons at the farm, which is one of the largest therapeutic riding centers in the U.S. Three years later, the siblings are accomplished riders, trotting and cantering around the arena. Along the way, Nyla’s confidence grew, helping her navigate the responsibilities of being the oldest child in a single-parent household where her mom is fighting cancer. The horses also give the children comfort. Miles says that when a horse wraps its head around him, it feels like a “nice big hug.”
Then there are the people of Fieldstone, who strive to help the children feel secure. “The staff and volunteers give them that motherly, aunty kind of love,” says their mother, DeVonna, adding, “Fieldstone provided stability in a world where we weren’t sure what was happening next.”
Today, DeVonna’s treatments have been successful and the whole family is feeling optimistic about a bright future. The horses at Fieldstone will continue to be there for Nyla and Miles, and for hundreds of others dealing with emotional issues, neurological disorders, mobility issues, and developmental challenges. Children, youth, veterans, and seniors can all find comfort and hope at Fieldstone.
Rainhorse Equine Assisted Services
Nestled along the Nowood River, surrounded by hay meadows and lush grazing land, you’ll find a special place where horses and humans find peace and hope – Rainhorse Equine Assisted Services.
Founded by Maria Lisa Eastman, the novel therapy program partners equine “staff” with mental health professionals. Together, they help people from all walks of life regain physical, mental, and emotional health.
“We believe healing is most powerful when it is reciprocal, so we invite people who are struggling with life’s challenges to partner with horses who have also had their own troubles,” Maria explains.
Most of the non-profit’s four-legged counselors suffered neglect and mistreatment before being rescued and rehabilitated by Rainhorse. These once-discarded horses find new purpose, enabling the Wyoming-based non-profit’s unique brand of equine-assisted counseling, hippotherapy, and therapeutic riding.
For program participant Robin, who was entangled in a toxic marriage, the horses provided a beacon of light, as she struggled with low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression. “Every time I participated in a therapy session, I gained back a bit of dignity and self-confidence,” she explains.
Robin’s story of healing and hope is shared by many Rainhorse clients. “Not everyone responds to traditional ‘talk’ therapies,” Maria explains. “Horses have a special ability to inspire self-awareness, confidence, and trust, all ingredients to mental and emotional health. As a result, we’ve seen profound positive changes in our program participants.”
Volunteer Sydnee concurs with Maria’s assessment. “There is nothing like Rainhorse. It’s a place full of patience, resilience, care, compassion, hardship, and growth,” she insists. “It’s not about just you or the horses – it’s about connection, support, understanding, freedom from within, and so much more. Blessed are those who experience what this organization and these animals have to offer.”
Gateway Family Services
Some of the best teachers have four legs, or at least that’s what Gateway Family Service of Illinois client I.G. says. She credits Sonny, one of the mental health agency’s therapy horses, with helping her when life was hard. “In my darkest times, knowing I would be able to get out to the ranch and spend time with Sonny kept me going,” I.G. admits.
Sonny is one of 15 therapy animals that partner with skilled clinicians and equine professionals to help clients heal and reconnect. According to Gateway clinical therapist Gabby Remole, the agency’s unique approach allows children, families, veterans and others to address challenging behaviors and build relationship skills outside the clinical setting.
“I have seen healing and ‘ah-ha’ moments happen more quickly and more organically in equine-assisted therapy sessions that I ever have in talk therapy sessions,” she explains. “Animals have the ability to connect with people who aren’t able or ready to build relationships with other humans.”
Equine therapy isn’t magic, but Gabby admits it sometimes feels magical. Especially when you’re in the presence of Gateway’s intuitive horses. “We could not do this work without them,” she says. “They are our partners, co-workers and family, and we work hard to ensure our horses benefit just as much as the humans.”
Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation
Joey arrived at the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation (TRF) severely malnourished, covered in fleas, and nursing an old ankle injury sustained at the racetrack. No longer fit for racing, he was abandoned in a field with no access to food, water or basic care. Volunteers at TRF, the nation’s oldest and largest equine sanctuary, gave Joey a second chance – just as they’ve done for thousands of other retired and discarded racehorses.
Founded in 1983, TRF initially set out to save horses like Joey. That’s still core to its mission, but along the way, founder Monique Koehler saw an opportunity to help inmates in need of a second chance, too. She teamed up with the State of New York’s Department of Correctional Services to design, staff and maintain a vocational equine care training program for inmates. Today, the TRF Second Chances Program operates eight such initiatives, spread across seven states.
“This program has been very successful in reducing recidivism and providing inmate students with the skills they need to find gainful employment upon their release,” says Patricia Stickney, executive director for the non-profit. In addition, program participants also gain confidence, compassion and a sense of empathy.
Testimonials tell the story best. “The biggest, most important take away for me was the sense of empowerment and courage I found at Second Chances Farm,” explains Jamie, a graduate from TRF’s Ocala, Florida, program. “So much so, that if I were released tomorrow, I could walk out into the world knowing I can take on any challenge or hurdle I may experience in life.”
While not every TRF rescue horse becomes part of the Second Chances program, all are assured a loving, lifetime home. Some find new forever homes through adoption; others enjoy a dignified retirement at TRF. As the TRF team emphasizes, it’s all about giving horses and humans second chances, living out their motto: “Saving horses, saving lives. Every day.”
John and Amy Henderson started Legacy Farmstead with a mission to help veterans and first responders battling post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and chronic stress. Aided by their team of therapy horses, along with a barnyard full of goats, cows, chickens, pigs and cats, the couple helps families reconnect and heal through their unique blend of equine therapy and farm life.
“PTSD not only affects the veteran or first responder that experienced it, but it truly affects the entire family,” John explains. “Legacy Farmstead is a place for individuals and families to retreat and get away from their troubles.”
The non-profit’s idyllic setting provides the perfect atmosphere for renewal. In addition to its caring team, Amy insists it’s the therapy horses that are the true heroes. The herd, all abused or abandoned by previous owners, have a magical way of connecting with Legacy visitors. One family, who had lost their two teenage children in a car accident, stands out.
“The mother would hardly talk to anyone or go anywhere,” Amy recalls. Desperate for help, her family heard about Legacy and came out for a weekend. She arrived quiet, sullen and terrified of animals, but Chief, a therapy horse with a difficult past, helped her transform. “By the end of the weekend, she wanted to be a part of everything,” Amy continues. “We’ve never experienced something so massive before.”
Kopper Top Life Learning Center, Inc.
With little trunk control, Jeff can’t sit or walk on his own. But when he’s on top of his horse at Kopper Top Life Learning Center, he’s the king of the world. He sits up high, and laughs and jokes, all while working hard to build core strength, confidence and love for animals.
“Kopper Top has been a great provider of encouragement, friendship and love,” says Jeff’s mom. “In the course of the 15 years he’s ridden here, they’ve helped him build physical, mental and emotional strength.”
Nestled in the Piedmont region of North Carolina, Kopper Top is dedicated to providing quality therapy in a non-clinical atmosphere. By using animal-assisted recreational therapy, they empower, enable and enhance the quality of life for individuals with special needs.
Founder Deborah Meridith says the animals are the key to the program’s success. “When they ride a horse, they get to control an animal that’s 1,000 to 1,2000 pounds,” she explains. “Knowing they can do that gives them the confidence to know they can accomplish other things, too.”
Mane in Heaven
For most of the decade, Mane in Heaven has used its team of miniature horses to spread empathy, kindness and overall wellbeing. Through site visits to local hospitals, skilled nursing care facilities, schools and other community outreach efforts, the non-profit spreads joy, laughter and its own special kind of healing.
“Miracles happen every visit,” insists Dina Morgan, president of the Illinois-based non-profit. “Mane in Heaven brings people hope, and when people have hope, they’re willing to try.”
Dina recalls a particularly impactful visit to the local Shriner’s Hospital. A young girl in leg braces was clearly struggling with her physical therapy session. The girl was refusing to walk, insisting it was too hard. Then she spotted therapy horse Hope, and all her obstacles floated away. Horse lead in hand, the girl proceeded to give Hope a walking tour of the hospital.
“The human-animal bond is undeniable,” Dina insists. “That’s why a miniature therapy horse is capable of getting a patient to walk when all other efforts have failed.”
Humane Animal Welfare Society of Waukesha County
The Humane Animal Welfare Society of Waukesha County, Wisconsin, embraces a two-fold mission, helping animals and humans through adoptions and education. The open-admission, no-kill shelter is first and foremost a safe haven for animals in need, but it’s also much, much more.
For 6-year-old Ayla, HAWS is a peaceful place. It’s where she and her best friend Emma volunteered together. Sadly, Emma passed away, succumbing to brain cancer before her ninth birthday. But Ayla is still a regular visitor, carrying on their shared passion for animals.
For the animals who call HAWS home, it’s often a second chance at life. Each year, the team at HAWS assists more than 8,000 animals, most often finding them new, forever homes through adoption. Sometimes, however, what is needed is a brief respite while their families get their lives back on track.
That was the case for two large dogs who found their way to HAWS through the shelter’s Safe Keep program. Their pet parents had lost their home. Rather than relinquish their beloved family pets, HAWS provided free board for the Akita and Labrador dogs, keeping them for a month until the family found stable housing.
In addition to its four-legged friends, HAWS welcomes more than 35,000 visitors annually. Many participate in pet training and youth education programs, another priority for the organization. “We are dedicated to the education of humane values as a means of improving the lives of all the animals in our community, not just those within our walls,” says Lynn Olenik, executive director for HAWS.
The hours are long, but Lynn and her team share a common belief: “Anyone who has owned a pet knows the difference that the animal made in their life.” At HAWS, their mission is to return the favor.
Heroes and Horses
Many veterans struggle with the transition from soldier to civilian. Heroes and Horses, a Montana-based nonprofit founded by former Navy SEAL Micah Fink, helps veterans regain their footing, find new purpose, and test their strength in the wild.
The equine-centered program takes a novel approach to therapy, using expedition-style horse pack trips to teach self-reliance, teamwork and perseverance. This is combined with a leadership program, required reading, physical fitness and nutrition. In other words, it is a true 360-degree approach to addressing the physical and mental obstacles that many veterans face.
“This program is unlike any other,” says Karynne Anderson, the group’s development manager. “While we don’t have the magic answer, we believe time, space, wilderness exposure, and equine experience can be a very powerful mixture.”
During the 41-day program, participants are paired with a horse to feed, care for and learn from. It’s no vacation. After a five-day introduction to horsemanship, they set out to explore Montana’s backcountry, led by experienced guides. Weather, rugged terrain, physical challenges and other frustrations push veterans. And this is what enables them to open up in ways traditional talk therapy often can’t.
“It’s obvious that the current model of treatment for veterans isn’t working,” Anderson explains, pointing to high rates of suicide, unemployment, and prescription drug abuse. “Our comprehensive, all-encompassing 41-day program challenges veterans to look inward for positive change. In addition, we provide the space and time for individuals to understand what is truly important and what is the right move for them.”
DJ’s Words of Hope
Hear how Carl E Dahl House transformed DJ’s life for the better after hitting rock bottom and the words of encouragement he would tell anyone else who is struggling right now.
Why Brady Finally Made a Change
Brady shares his journey to recovery following 25 years of addiction and what finally made a difference for him. Hear in his words what he got out of working with the animals at Carl E Dahl House.
What Carl E Dahl House Is and Who They Serve
Hear staff share what makes Carl E Dahl House at Cass Farm so special. Plus, the crucial difference between them and other traditional recovery programs and the biggest thing that changes their clients for the better.
The Transformative Effect of Animals
Facilitators at Carl E Dahl House at Cass Farm explain what it’s like for their clients in recovery to come to the farm for the first time and exactly what the animals can uniquely offer that the human staff cannot.
AJ’s Breakthrough at the Farm
Hear AJ, a former addict, explain how the animals at Carl E Dahl House made a major difference in his recovery. And find out exactly what it is that made this experience so vastly different from the many other substance abuse treatment programs he’s tried in the past.
Seamark Ranch is a faith-based family home system, residential school, and working farm that gives children from families in crisis the tools they need for a brighter future. Since opening its doors in 2007, more than 100 children have called Seamark home. Each has experienced trauma prior to their arrival, but at the sprawling 465-acre ranch, they find love and healing – and some even find their voice.
Equine program coordinator Allene Zvara recalls one such child, who’d been removed from an abusive home. “She wouldn’t speak to anyone,” Allene explains. “Then she fell in love with our horses. The first time we heard her talking, it was to her horse.”
Seamark’s equestrian program uses a hands-on approach to enhance skills, re-establish trust and motivate positive change. By caring for and riding Seamark’s horses, children learn respect for themselves and others, empathy, self-control, confidence, accountability, and problem-solving. Perhaps most importantly, it’s just plain fun.
“The focus is always on the kids,” Allene emphasizes. “Getting to know a horse is a special relationship that reaches the kids…and gets them to open up.”
In Step with Horses
Melissa Hauserman knows animals can reach vulnerable people in ways humans cannot. She’s witnessed their special connection time again through her work at In Step With Horses, the equine therapy center she helped start.
“Talk therapy doesn’t work for everyone,” she explains. For some, an experiential therapy program, like the equine model used at In Step, enables breakthroughs that might never happen in a traditional office setting. As Melissa says: “Animals show us how to be better humans.”
The non-profit, which pairs clients with licensed therapists and therapy animals, works with veterans, first responders, survivors of violence and human trafficking, and persons living with chronic mental health conditions. The goal: to help people process trauma and learn new coping skills to improve their lives.
As an example of the In Step magic, Melissa shares the story of a 13-year-old teen and an aging Hackney-cross pony. “Sarah” lived at a residential foster care facility, after spending most of a year on the street. For months, she made weekly visits to In Step as part of a small group therapy program – but fear kept her away from the animals at the barn. Supported by In Step’s caring staff, she eventually agreed to walk into the arena with a horse. She chose G-Whiz, and he became her horse.
“Sarah built an incredible, life-changing relationship with Whiz,” Melissa recalls. “He would whinny to her when he heard her enter the barn and call his name, and she felt accepted and loved.” Filled with newfound confidence, she began to form relationships with people at the barn and the residential facility. “Whiz changed her life by giving her unconditional love and support,” Melissa says. “She found her voice and gained the confidence to connect with others.”
Changing Gaits is built on a straightforward premise: Horses can change lives. Founder Guy Kaufmann sees the truth in that simple statement every time he looks in a mirror.
After struggling for years with addiction, Guy credits his horse Shadow with helping him overcome his challenges. Inspired to share his experience with others, he launched Changing Gaits in 2004. Sixteen years later, the Minnesota-based equine therapy program has grown to offer programs for at-risk youth, adolescents with autism, victims of abuse, those with physical disabilities, and more.
“Part of our magic is getting people away from the places that trigger negative behaviors,” Guy explains. “We help them work through their trauma at our beautiful 80-acre ranch while building a bond with our wonderful therapy horses.”
Jack Frost, a small, blind pony, is one of those miracle workers. He’s smaller and slower than the other horses, and they often ignore him as he struggles to keep up. But for many of the clients at Changing Gaits, Jack Frost’s challenges are deeply relatable.
“I remember one eight-year-old boy. He saw so much of himself in that little horse, he was able to tell our therapist about previously undisclosed abuse,” Guy explains. “As a result, we were able to get the boy additional protections– all because he liked the little horse at the back of the pack.”
Volunteer Tina Klien is another big fan of the little pony, and of the work being done at Changing Gait. “I see how building one positive relationship with a horse can lead to so much good for people in their lives.… I leave the ranch every day with hope.”
Rhythm of the Rein
Imagine a place where people with mental and physical limitations could remove the “dis” from disability. That was the vision when Dianne Lashoones founded Rhythm of the Rein. Twenty years later, the Vermont-based non-profit continues to use her special mix of adaptive riding, hippotherapy, and therapeutic driving to help clients from all walks of life find their true abilities.
Erik Kindestin is a graduate-turned-volunteer for the program. As a young child, he spent many years at Rhythm of the Rein, rehabbing from a prenatal stroke. “Although I still have some residual effects, this program gave me the confidence and physical abilities to pursue my goals,” he says. Today, the biology major loves hiking, marching in the university band, and volunteering.
Atop a horse, clients like Erik find new abilities, building muscle tone, motor coordination, and balance, all while developing important social and emotional skills too.
Board Member Sue Martin credits the organization’s team of highly trained horses with the program’s success. “While the human part of the therapy team is extremely caring and compassionate, it’s the equine connection that produces the magic,” Sue insists. “The most spirited horse will immediately calm when introduced to someone with a severe disability, knowing their special cargo needs to be provided with comfort and patience.”
Carl E. Dahl House
Situated on a 40-acre hilltop in Athol, Massachusetts, the Carl E. Dahl House represents a departure from traditional approaches to substance abuse recovery. Here, residents learn to care for livestock and reconnect with the earth, while also receiving clinical support and recovery education.
Patients still receive individual counseling, group counseling and develop individual treatment plans, just as they would in another program. However, instead of sitting in classrooms or on therapists’ couches, these sessions happen in barns and pastures. As a result, the unique therapeutic farming program facilitates healing in a setting that feels more like a large family than a sterile clinic-based recovery program.
“The animals on the farm are the secret ingredient in our equation,” says Katie Follett, the therapeutic farm coordinator for the Dahl House. “Our animals don’t judge. They make no assumptions and have no interest in the mistakes a person has made in the past. Instead, they seek companionship and love.”
Purpose is built into every day, as residents combine counseling sessions with daily farm responsibilities. Farm staff provides all the necessary training and support, enabling clients to go to bed each night with a sense of accomplishment.
“Tasks that at first look like chores such as feeding, watering, grooming, and walking soon become expressions of empathy and compassion for another living being,” Katie explains. “Our animals play a vital role in helping our patients rediscover their self-worth as together they learn how to depend on each other.”
Like any working farm, at the Dahl House there are no days off. “It’s great practice for a person in recovery,” Katie insists. “Just as the farm and animals need care in rain, snow, or blistering heat, people in recovery must work their program every day, no matter what.”
The Right Path
For a quarter of a century, The Right Path has been helping Oklahomans’ with special needs achieve their highest potential through a unique equine-assisted therapy program.
“We like to say that The Right Path can benefit anyone who has life challenges,” explains Julie Jones, who leads the nonprofit’s public relations efforts. “From staff to participants to volunteers to family members, every person has things in life that challenge them. Our horses don’t care; they offer healing that comes without judgment.”
That healing can take many forms. The Right Path currently runs five programs, including therapeutic riding and cart-driving for children and adults with unique challenges, horsemanship classes for veterans, and a youth development initiative. Each class has a distinct focus, but with the help of The Right Path’s four-legged heroes, participants develop trusting relationships, practice communication skills, build physical strength, and gain self-esteem and confidence. The horses prove to be great motivators, even when COVID-19 restrictions keep clients and horses apart. Just ask Ethan.
Ethan was a regular at The Right Path. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and his physician called off outside activities. Visiting his favorite horse, Zyro, was no longer optional. Ethan worried that Zyro would forget him, but the dedicated volunteers at The Right Stuff came to the rescue. Now Ethan gets regular emails from Zyro. “Helping Ethan know that Zyro is still here, waiting for him will hopefully encourage him on the days that he struggles to be home,” Julie says.
Long-time volunteer Joshalyn Ocker sums up the organization’s purpose with one simple word: freedom. “It’s freedom from stress and disability and judgment and stigma and stereotype,” she says. “It’s freedom from the things that restrict us from achieving our best and it helps us become what we’re meant to be.”
Horses Know Your Truth
Equine therapy uses the intuitive power of horses to heal wounded people. Because horses are always honest and hyper-alert to their surroundings, they can communicate what’s really going on internally with people, even if the person is trying to hide it.
Savannah, from Rescued to Rescuer
The founder of Rise Canyon Ranch, Theresa, met a horse named Savannah at a rescue farm and fell in love with her at first sight. Savannah has overcome a lot of hardship in her life. She has had to do a lot of healing of her own, so she understands deep trauma and is able to help others overcome their troubled pasts, too.
Making Mental Space to Learn
The staff at Rise Canyon Ranch know: when a child has mental health struggles or other issues going on in their lives, they don’t have enough mental energy left for learning. So they developed a program called Rising Readers, to create a much-needed foundation for learning. There, they teach kids how to read, alongside animals in their arena. And they say it’s incredible to see the confidence grow in kids who participate in the program.
The Herd Dynamic in Therapy
The herd dynamic is a powerful tool in equine therapy because it’s a reflection of group dynamics with people. An equine specialist is there for every therapy session, translating the horse’s actions as it communicates honestly what it sees in front of them. The magic happens as the horses bring things out in participants that they didn’t even realize about themselves.
The Holistic Approach Equine Therapy Offers
Equine therapy is unique in its holistic approach where patients receive physical, occupational, and speech therapies all at once. The best part of it is you are having fun and not realizing how hard you’re really working. It changes lives and is an emotional journey–even for the therapists who do this every day.
Teddy & Nora’s Special Relationship
Nora is a young woman with spina bifida. She’s paralyzed from mid-back down, so her balance is extremely compromised. Despite all that she has had to overcome, she always rises to the occasion. Working with Teddy the horse has changed her life in so many ways, including improving her confidence and giving her enough mobility to learn how to drive.
Beth, the founder of Beyond Boundaries, grew up caring for a rescue horse. So when her first patient as a Physical Therapist was a one-year-old quadriplegic, she put him on her horse to see if it could help him. And that’s when everything started to change.
The Power of Equine Therapy
Beth, the founder of Beyond Boundaries, grew up caring for a rescue horse. So when her first patient as a Physical Therapist was a one-year-old quadriplegic, she put him on her horse to see if it could help him. And that’s when everything started to change.
When Justin arrived at Purpose Farm, he was emaciated, bruised, and swollen, the victim of years of abuse and neglect. But according to Sandra Seabrook, founder of the New York-based nonprofit, the quarter horse’s difficult life story makes him the perfect partner for the youth mentoring program she and her family run.
At Purpose Farm, they pair youth ages 6-18 struggling with emotional trauma from neglect, abuse or bullying, with animals that have been rescued from similar circumstances. “They overcome their traumas together as they work at the farm,” Sandra explains. Today, 40-some animals call Purpose Farm home. Most, like Justin, are rescues.
At the farm, the animals find a loving, forever home, and new purpose as mentors for troubled children and youth. Sandra says the healing flows both ways. “The youth respond so quickly to our animals,” she explains. “In just one session, they’ll go from being quiet and emotionless, to smiling, asking questions and helping care for the animals.”
It’s all part of Sandra’s mission: to make a difference in the lives of both humans and animals. “If I can let these kids know that what they are going through now is not the way things will always be, give them hope for their future, confidence to live it out and love them to the other side, then I have fulfilled my purpose.”
Rise Canyon Ranch
At Rise Canyon Ranch, changing people’s lives is an everyday occurrence. As an equine-assisted psychotherapy organization, they provide mental health support and healing for children, adults, and families alike. Equine therapy is seen as a great alternative option for those who aren’t comfortable with traditional therapy, allowing more people to get the support they need.
The staff implements a variety of techniques in the work they do in order to maximize the potential for better responses. But there are always two constants: a mental health specialist working directly with patients and an equine specialist keeping patients safe and “translating” the horses’ actions.
Psychotherapist and founder, Theresa DuBois, explains why horses and therapy are a surprisingly natural pair, saying “horses are prey animals that are hyper alert to the world around them. It has kept them alive generationally and helped them survive. So they pick up on our internal world before we do.”
Theresa has seen incredible transformations in both clients and horses since founding the organization. She says “I believe with patience, love, and acceptance, you can change.”
Rise Canyon Ranch believes everyone needs encouragement and support at times. And that it should always be equitable and accessible, regardless of your ability to pay.
At Beyond Boundaries, they’re used to doing things a little differently, offering hippotherapy–treatment with the use of horses–to children in need. Their work stands out from other equine-therapy programs across the country by providing a combination of physical, occupational, and speech therapy to patients as needed. The horses assist in providing life skills that translate in children’s day-to-day lives.
President, Beth Stamp, founded the organization after introducing her childhood horse to a one-year-old quadrapalegic patient who had been unresponsive to the more traditional methods of physical therapy. After seeing the incredible and instantaneous gains he made, the rest is history. She and her team of volunteers have been offering this one-of-a-kind therapy ever since.
She says the children in treatment aren’t the only ones benefiting. According to Beth, horses “want to have meaning in their life, too.” She believes her therapy horses understand their mission and get just as much out of living a life of purpose as any person would.
SOUL Harbour Ranch
Sharing unconditional love. That’s the singular mission for SOUL Harbor Ranch, an idea that’s lived out in every visit, every therapy animal and every volunteer.
Since its beginnings in 2010, founder Jodie Diegel and her dedicated team of volunteers have traveled throughout the Chicago area, bringing four-legged comfort animals to hospitals, nursing homes, retirement communities, schools, homes for the disabled and more. With specially trained miniature horses and donkeys, as well as a number of much-loved dogs, SOUL Harbour’s animals lighten the day of all fortunate enough to encounter them.
“At every visit, our special animals spread joy, laughter and smiles,” Joy explains. Just watching the group’s miniature horses, clomp down the hall clad in custom-made tennis shoes is sure to bring a few giggles of delight to often somber hospital rooms. For a moment, she says, people forget their pain, and experience the healing powers of the human-animal bond.
Volunteer Anne Arroyo recalls one such encounter at a local medical center with a young girl, who was in isolation. Over the course of several months, Anne would stop outside the girl’s room with some of SOUL Harbour’s miniature horses, but she could only wave from her bed. Then finally, there came a visit when the child could pet the horses. “She had the biggest grin as she loved on two of our horses,” Anne says. “Her mom confided she hadn’t seen that smile in a long time, making the moment all the more special.”
For Jodie, it’s just one example among hundreds that illustrate the value of SOUL Harbour’s programs. “People connect with animals and our animals connect with people in a way that we can’t,” she says. “They are so healing for so many people, and we need more of that in the world today.”
Healing with Horses Ranch
Horses are the true teachers at Healing with Horses Ranch.
The Texas-based nonprofit provides multiple equine-assisted programs for people experiencing learning, behavioral, mental, and physical challenges. It serves three core populations – at-risk youth, veterans and clients with disabilities such as Down syndrome, autism and cerebral palsy – through a combination of adaptive riding, equine-assisted learning, and equine-assisted counseling services.
“They may be paid in hay, but we see our horses as specially trained staff members that partner with us to help our clients,” says Patty D’Andrea, founder of Healing with Horses Ranch. She contends the bond between clients and their four-legged therapist deepens the effectiveness of every therapy session.
Volunteer Bethany Wager concurs. The University of Texas graduate student puts her training in health behavior and education to work at the Ranch on a regular basis. “It’s amazing to watch clients come alive when riding or working with the horses,” she says, noting how interacting with the gentle giants builds confidence, resilience and independence.
“Every day I get to see people learn how to relax, how to communicate more clearly, how to advocate for their horse because they listened to its needs,” Patty adds. “They see how when they are not focused on their horse, it gets anxious or even frustrated, but when they take a deep breath and get present, their horse relaxes.”
Best of all, clients put the lessons learned at the Ranch into practice once they leave the farm. “We don’t just touch lives,” says Patty, “we change lives.”
It’s hard to know who benefits more at Headin’ Home – the horses or the humans. Created by Tony and Esther Pistone, the Utah-based non-profit serves as both a horse rescue and equine-assisted therapy facility.
As a horse rescue, Headin’ Home provides a safe haven for both domestic and wild horses, working to gentle, rehabilitate and ready them for adoption to loving homes. At the same time, the non-profit provides equine-assisted therapy to veterans, first responders, victims of domestic abuse and others in need of help.
Board member Karina Redweik, a veteran herself, says Headin’ Home transformed her life. Today, through her work with organization, she’s paying it forward. “My job in the military was to provide the necessary supplies to the soldiers in my unit,” she explains. “Now, my position with Headin’ Home is to supply the necessary resources to support my brothers and sisters in arms when they return home.”
The group’s motto – humans helping horses helping humans – illustrates their approach to equine-focused therapy through a program they’ve dubbed Healin’ Journey. While many equine therapy programs help participants build bonds and nurture emotional growth through guided interactions with domestic horses, Headin’ Home has the added advantage of using the process of gentling wild and rescued horses to facilitate healing.
According to Tony, veterans and first responders have a lot in common with the often abused and neglected horses who find refuge at Headin’ Home. “We take in horses that are broken and humans that are broken, then work to help make them whole,” he explains. “A lot of folks are on their last legs because they’ve given up hope. We try to help them find their way back home.”
Still Meadows Enrichment Center and Camp
It’s been 11 years since Catherine Fisher first visited Still Meadows Enrichment Center and Camp – but clearly, that initial tour made quite an impression. In the ensuing decade, she’s volunteered countless hours to support the Virginia-based non-profit’s day camp, field trip and therapeutic riding programs.
Founded to provide therapeutic activities for children and adults with developmental and physical challenges, Still Meadows relies on its team of horses and other farm animals to keep participates active, engaged and having fun.
“Animals bring out so much for a child with special needs,” Catherine explains. “Whether they’re cuddling a baby chick, feeding the camp cat or riding one of our horses, all I see are huge smiles.”
Time at Still Meadows is packed with fun, but important learning happens, too. Participants practice critical social and communication skills as they engage with volunteers and other campers, and gain a sense of accomplishment – and improve physical skills like balance – as they learn to ride a horse.
“I go home exhausted but satisfied, knowing we brought joy for those few hours we were together,” Catherine says. “These children and adults look forward to attending our programs, and their enthusiasm, smiles and laughter is so fulfilling. It feels great to make a difference.”
Newfoundland Pony Conservancy Center
What if a horse could help the doctors, nurses and other front-line healthcare workers, struggling under the daily stress of providing care during a global pandemic? That’s what Emily Aho asked, after her own father died of COVID-19 earlier this year.
A retired registered nurse, certified Equine Assisted Life Skills facilitator, and founder of the Newfoundland Pony Conservancy Center, Emily realized that she was uniquely positioned to help these hardworking heroes.
“I had the ponies, and as the child of a COVID victim and former RN, I could really relate,” Emily explains. With her mission in hand, she partnered with True Hope Therapeutic Horsemanship to bring the one-of-a-kind program to life.
Emily is quick to point out that it’s the critically endangered Newfoundland ponies that are the heart of the program, serving as four-legged therapists for those in need. “Who wouldn’t enjoy having a fuzzy sweet pony as their teacher, teammate and life coach?” she asks.
Who indeed! Under Emily’s watchful eye, healthcare workers partner with the horses to complete a series of objective-based exercises, an experience participants’ find empowering, relaxing and fun. “Self-care is often overlooked in healthcare, because we’re so focused on taking care of others,” admits Cathy T., a recent Heal for Heroes participant. “Since attending this program, I’m taking more time to stay in the moment and enjoy the little things, instead of going until I just can’t go anymore.”
“It’s hard for me to put into words how much Heal the Heroes helped me during this difficult time,” she continues, “but I will never forget this experience.”
Simple Sparrow Care Farm
Eight years ago, Jamie Tanner and her husband Eric purchased a small farm, intent on giving their children the experience of learning, growing and healing surrounded by animals. It turns out, many local families wanted the same thing, so in December 2017, Simple Sparrow Care Farm was born.
While relatively few care farms currently operate in the U.S., they are common in other parts of the world, especially Europe. Like the name implies, these farms tap into therapeutic agricultural practices to facilitate healing. At Simple Sparrow, guests learn to care for land, gardens and animals. Along the way, they become better equipped to care for themselves and others.
“Animals have an innate ability to accept, comfort and calm us,” Jamie explains. “This ability lends itself to healing psychological traumas.” Equally important, the life skills learned at the farm extend well beyond the barnyard gate, vividly underscoring the importance of kindness, gentleness and self-control and empowering individuals to nurture positive relationships and leave toxic ones behind.
“We are here for a purpose: to care for the earth and all the animals that live here with us,” Jamie says. “When we help another creature live up to their full potential, we live up to ours as well.”
Humane Animal Welfare Society of Waukesha County
For more than 50 years, the Humane Animal Welfare Society (HAWS) has been finding homes for homeless animals and educating Waukesha, Wisconsin, residents on animal welfare issues. Today, the shelter accommodates more than 8,000 animals annually, and has grown to include a 77-acre horse farm (soon to be transformed into an education and training resource center) along with an affordable veterinary medical clinic.
Lynn Olenik, executive director for the non-profit, says the group’s balanced approach to animal welfare enables it to impact the animals within the shelter’s walls as well as educate and support pet owners in the community. In addition to traditional animal shelter and adoption services, HAWS offers animal training and behavior classes, a low-cost veterinary clinic and other initiatives designed to help pet owners keep their four-legged friends healthy and happy at home. Olenik credits these efforts, along with a successful spay/neuter program, with a 70% reduction in euthanasia.
Like many non-profits, HAWS relies on a dedicated group of volunteers to carry out its ambitious mission. Cindy Pechanch is one of those hard-working animal lovers, spending hours cleaning litter boxes and walking dogs, in addition to serving on the group’s board of directors. While she’s given hundreds of hours to the organization, Cindy insists she’s gotten far more in return. “Taking in a scared, wounded, shut-down animal and watching them grow into a happy, confident and content critter is the most rewarding process to watch,” Cindy says.
Lynn concurs, but goes one step further, noting the important role animals play in many people’s lives – her own included. “Animals foster good will, create connectivity and are resilient role models for us to emulate,” she says. “From them we can learn and teach compassion, unconditional love and nurturing, which in turn builds character and creates a stronger, kinder community.”
Blue River Horse Center
John Longhill insists there’s something magical about horses and their ability to help humans. The founder of Blue River Horse Center (BRHC) should know. He’s spent the last three decades connecting horses and people, witnessing the resulting transformations.
Located on a 300-acre ranch along Colorado’s scenic Lower Blue River, BRHC serves as a rescue for abused and abandoned horses, while also empowering children and adults through leadership and self-awareness programs.
To live out the first part of its mission, the non-profit partners with other horse rescue agencies, fostering their hard-to-adopt horses. At BRCH, the horses receive the love and training they need to become “adoptable,” developing improved ground manners, rideability and reliability.
For the second, BRCH relies on those same rehabilitated horses to teach critical life skills. Thousands of children have participated in the center’s programs, each with a story to tell. But John’s favorite anecdote centers on a young boy named Danny. He’d bounced around foster homes, been in detention homes for criminal behavior, and seemed to be on a bad track. Danny arrived at BRCH for a week-long camp with a lot of anger, but after a rough start, he ended up having a great week.
“We sent him off hoping that we had given him some tools to redirect his life in a more positive way,” John says. Ten years later, out of the blue, Danny reconnected with BRCH via email, attributing his time at the ranch with turning his life around.
“Successful behavior in life is dependent on our thoughts, attitudes and action,” John emphasizes. “Horses help us to see our unconscious behavior. They have an uncanny ability to raise our awareness about ourselves, helping children like Danny to take charge of their thoughts and chart a whole new course with their life.”
Stirrups ‘n Strides Therapeutic Riding Center
Stirrups ‘n Strides has a vision. Empower, enrich and inspire. And that’s exactly what they do, every day.
Their approach is pretty straightforward: to help individuals heal through the power of horsemanship. By fostering relationships between humans and horses, Stirrups ‘n Strides provides incredible therapeutic results for hundreds of people with physical, mental and emotional hurdles.
The real beauty of the ‘Strides mission is in how horse and human work together to grow and heal. Nurturing a psychological bond between horse and rider isn’t just wholesome and enjoyable for both. It also promotes self-confidence and control, attentiveness, physical activity, and relationship building skills. Most of all though, the process is cathartic—it inspires a mutual respect, trust, and admiration that is spiritually nourishing and immensely therapeutic.
The Stirrups ‘n Strides Therapeutic Riding Center operates out of Citra, Florida, and is even a certified Olympic Training Facility. But the people they help have come from all over, and continue on, all over, to do incredible things. All thanks, at least in part, to the incredible healing made possible through the special bond between humans and horses.
At King’s Home, a residential refuge for youth, women and children seeking escape from domestic violence, neglect, homelessness and similar circumstances, personal connections are sometimes hard to make. A lifetime of abuse can leave residents wary of new relationships. But the horses at the non-profit’s King’s Stable equine therapy program have a knack for breaking through.
One of the program’s instructors recalls one such incident. “A young resident was quietly brushing one of our older horses. After about half the lesson, she called me into the stall to ask what all the marks were on the horse. I took a deep breath and explained how he had been abused and left with scars. The girl nodded her head and continued to brush. As I was leaving the stall, I heard her whisper to the animal ‘I have scars, too.’
“It’s a moment I’ll never forget as the teen, who had suffered neglect and abuse, was able to connect with the horse and find common ground. I am forever grateful to our equine partners who selflessly bear the weight of so many breakthrough moments that occur in equine therapy.”
Horses for Hope TRC, Inc.
Carmalee says she’s living proof that miracles happen. In 2003, a life-altering crash caused by a drunk driver left her in a wheelchair. Seven years later, she could still only walk about 100 feet using two crutches. Then Horses for Hope called with an opening in its therapeutic riding program.
“Within a few weeks, people noticed a difference in my posture and balance,” Carmalee recalls. By the end of the first semester, she could walk around the block with crutches. A year later, she was down to a single crutch, leading horses for therapeutic riding. And today, she’s the proud owner of two beautiful Paso Fino horses, walks short distances without crutches, and when she uses crutches, can go as far as she wants.
Carmalee credits Diablo, a Quarter Pony with deep blue eyes, and the patient instructors at Horses for Hope with the dramatic improvements. For program founders Gwen Roberts and Dawn Guenot, Carmalee’s story is further affirmation of the program they started 17 years ago.
Therapeutic horseback riding offers many benefits, from physical improvements in balance and strength to cognitive and emotional benefits, ranging from enhanced problem solving to higher self-esteem. Says Carmalee, who has since earned credentials as a certified riding instructor, “I know firsthand how therapeutic riding changes lives.”
War Horses at Rose Bower
For Barbara Luna, establishing War Horses at Rose Bower was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. A trainer, racetrack publicist and writer, Barbara has a deep affinity for these majestic, spirited animals.
“My time on the racetrack taught me that these horses need a safe place when their days of racing are over,” she explains. “They’ve earned money and served as entertainment. In their retirement, they deserve to be cared for by those who respect their competitive spirits, big hearts and intelligence.”
Since founding the non-profit in 2013, War Horses has provided aftercare to dozens of retired racehorses, offering them sanctuary, rehabilitation, and in many cases, new careers. “Our retirees have proven to be therapeutic for youth-at-risk, senior citizens, military veterans and those with autism,” Barbara notes. Yet without the program, she says many would have nowhere to go.
“At War Horses, we can help them through their injuries, let them relax after years on the racetrack, and reschool them so that they can be adopted to safe and loving homes,” Barbara explains.
Cheryl Kaletka started Fellinlove Farm for her daughters, who both have serious health issues. She wanted a place where they could learn about work and responsibility, practice socialization and just have fun. As she watched her daughters thrive, and as the Fellinlove Farm animal community grew, the Kaletka family decided to share their unique farm setting with others.
“Opening the farm to our volunteers and guests has allowed us to share the intense joy experienced from connecting with these amazing, diverse creatures,” Cheryl explains. Visitors have a chance to meet pigs, goats, cows, horses, donkeys, llamas, dogs, cats, bunnies and more.
Make no mistake, this is no ordinary petting zoo. Drawing on her experience as an early childhood special education professor and teacher, Cheryl created educational programs that allow guests of all ages and needs to enjoy the farm and its many animals. By far, the most popular is the farm’s adaptive field trip program.
In devising the program, Cheryl worked to make the farm and its many animals accessible to all. For those who struggle with anxiety in new environments, Fellinlove Farm offers an interactive virtual tour, enabling guests to see a “preview” before their planned visit. Wheelchair-friendly paths open the farm to guests with mobility issues. Plus, each adaptive field trip is tailored to the group’s unique needs, taking into account preferred learning styles, impairments, emotional and behavioral concerns, and more.
Cheryl’s commitment to inclusivity, aided by the farm’s 150 animal ambassadors, has made Fellinlove Farm a popular destination for school groups, families, and senior care facilities throughout western Michigan. “Through hands-on interactions with our gentle animals, we provide dynamic experiences for people of all ages and abilities,” she explains. “These intimate, individualized animal-human connections promote social, physical, mental and emotional benefits – and they’re a whole lot of fun, too.”
Sundance Circle Hippotherapy
John Payne, founder of Sundance Circle Hippotherapy, calls Montana, a patient Quarter Horse with a heart of gold, his “steady Eddy.” “She’s a fantastic horse that is gentle with anyone,” he explains. But she’s not just a great physical therapy partner, she’s also a great life-skills teacher.
John recalls one session in particular. A young girl with epilepsy and autism had a massive meltdown as she was getting ready to ride Montana. She ended up kicking the horse several times. “Montana was patient and calm,” John says, never flinching. Eventually, the girl regained control of her emotions and was able to complete her therapy session. But as she was leaving, Montana decided to teach her some manners. “The mare gave a huge sneeze, right in the girl’s face,” John remembers. “The girl wasn’t impressed, but we told her paybacks occur!”
Those real-world lessons are an added benefit to therapy sessions at Sundance, where children and adults come for speech, occupational and physical therapy in a decidedly non-traditional setting. Patients are paired with a therapist and a trained therapy horse, and together, they work to improve coordination, balance and strength. It’s a model that volunteer Dar Nottage says delivers clear results.
“I have witnessed a wide range of improvements in patients, including improved muscle strength, greater confidence, increased social awareness and enhanced empathy for others,” she explains. Plus, she adds, clients learn that therapy can be fun.
That last point just might be the biggest key to the program’s success and rapid growth. Three years ago, John launched Sundance Circle with little more than a vision and a lone horse. However, as word spread and his patient list grew, so did the Sundance herd. Today, the non-profit has seven therapy horses, seven therapists and sees more than 100 patient visits every month.
“The patients love their therapy and time with the horses,” John explains, as do the therapists and the volunteers. “It’s a win for everyone.”
Therapeutic Horsemanship Equestrian Center, Inc.
Cassie doesn’t care that Harley sometimes flaps his hands or engages in other repetitive movements. She’s always patient, calm and sweet – even if Harley, who has autism, is having a hard day.
As one of the 11 therapy horses at Therapeutic Horsemanship Equestrian Center, Inc. (T.H.E. Center), Cassie is tasked with an important job – helping individuals with special needs and disabilities reach their full potential. Harley’s mom, Maria, says Cassie delivers on that mission every week. “In the beginning, he could only tolerate the sensory stimulation that came from riding for about five minutes,” she recalls. Fast forward to today, and Harley can ride for the entire 45-minute session and even participates in group lessons.
With Cassie’s help, Harley has learned to follow instructions and developed his speech skills so he can verbally command and steer his mount. He’s even learning how to groom and care for Cassie. “She’s the perfect support for Harley as he challenges himself to reach his full potential,” Maria emphasizes.
According to Miguel Sarasa, executive director at T.H.E. Center, Harley’s story isn’t unique. Since opening in 1984, T.H.E. Center has served over 16,000 individuals and their families. “We see it time and time again, how our horses dramatically impact individuals of all ages and severity of diagnosis,” Miguel says, explaining that through the activities done in lessons, students improve communication skills, social cues, sensory processing, self-confidence and more. “Seeing our students thrive and challenge expectations has taught me that nothing is impossible – life challenges can be overcome, no matter how big they may seem,” he concludes.
Making Strides Therapeutic Horsemanship
Kimberly Childs has a dream – to open up the world of equine therapy to people around the globe. As the founder and chief cheerleader for Making Strides Therapeutic Horsemanship, she’s doing her part, one client at a time.
Joining her on the journey: a stable of predominately retired racehorses, embarking on their second career. As Kimberly explains, the program benefits the horses almost as much as the clients they help. “Providing second chances for thoroughbreds who are retiring from the track gives them a sense of value,” she points out.
Making Strides follows the Equine-Assisted Activity and Therapy model, teaching riders life skills through activities that encourage cognitive, physical and social skill development. For 8-year-old Ally, it’s just fun.
“Ally is always very excited the night before her lesson; she loves all the horses,” her grandfather explains. But while she’s having fun, she’s also getting stronger and improving her balance – benefits that stay with her long after her riding session is complete.
Volunteer Allison Langlitz, a physical therapist at a local hospital, sees those positive impacts repeated every time she enters the Making Strides barn. “It is incredibly rewarding to watch a child talk and sing and interact while on a horse, and to see their improvements in strength and balance,” she says. “Horses are magical animals and it is great to be able to share this magic with others.”
It’s not just the clients who benefit from PBJ Connections, an equine-assisted psychotherapy and behavioral health program based in Pataskala, Ohio. The volunteers and staff insist the unique program contributes to their well-being too.
Consider Ruth Tippett, a long-time “horse buddy” volunteer. “When I first started going to the barn, I was mentally and emotionally drained,” Ruth recalls. “But at PBJ, I’m able to leave some of that stress behind. The horses accept me as I am – no questions asked – faults and all.”
Beth Rolland, who serves as the group’s development director, says Ruth is not alone. “As a session co-facilitator, I’ve seen firsthand how we are literally saving people’s lives by providing them with the professional mental health services they need,” she explains.
Unlike many horse therapy programs, no one saddles up at PBJ. Instead, all the work happens on the ground. Since opening in 2006, the nonprofit – and its therapy horses and mules – has touched the lives of more than 900 individuals. The facility offers a wide range of mental health services, from “A Pony,” a program that partners with schools to help behaviorally challenged children to “Save a Warrior,” which works with veterans and first responders.
While Beth says she sometimes witnesses big breakthroughs, it’s often the little moments that stay with her the longest. She remembers one such encounter with Waffles, a shy mini horse, and an older woman, who was visiting PBJ with a group of senior citizens.
“The woman would sit on her walker, resting her forehead on his – just breathing together,” Beth recalls. “After several visits to the farm, she bravely decided to take Waffles for a walk.” Slowly, the two shuffled around the arena as she held his lead rope and used her walker for balance. Later, Beth learned the woman practiced walking every evening in the hallway of her care facility, just so she would be strong enough to walk with Waffles.
Whether it’s children from a local elementary school, learning to manage challenging behaviors and building communication skills, or veterans addressing post-traumatic stress or suicidal ideations, the PBJ therapy animals have a way of breaking down barriers and helping clients build positive connections.
Rebel and Kaitlyn share a special bond. Atop Rebel, Kaitlyn can put her cerebral palsy aside, focusing instead on building balance and strength.
Her first visit to Southern Reins, a nonprofit equine therapy program, was in 2016. Since then, with the help of Rebel and a dedicated group of volunteers and staff, Kaitlyn has developed her riding skills – and her strength. “When I started, I needed a horse leader and two side-walkers,” she recalls. “But the first time I got to ride was the first time, in a long time, that I felt free.” Today, she is a proud, independent rider, who credits the Tennessee nonprofit for changing her life.
Kaitlyn’s experience is not unique. Southern Reins currently serves more than 250 clients, up dramatically from the program’s original 12 participants just five years ago. Clients range in age from 3 to 78, and are struggling with wide-ranging disabilities, including Down syndrome, autism, multiple sclerosis and traumatic brain injury.
According to executive director Jill Haag, the program’s rapid growth demonstrates how impactful horse therapy programs can be in the lives of people with disabilities and hardships. “Horses are magnificent creatures that bring out the best in us all,” she explains. “They are powerful, generous, forgiving, challenging – and keenly intuitive to humans. With their help, we witness small victories become pivotal achievements every day.”
Lifting Spirits Miniature Therapy Horses
The tallest of Toni Hadad’s miniature horses may stand just 36 inches, but he – and the rest of her miniature herd – is all heart. Since Toni founded Lifting Spirts Miniature Therapy Horses, Tonka, Banshee and the rest of her mini gang have travelled all over New England, spreading joy, hope and love to children and adults of all ages and abilities.
“I’ve witnessed so many breakthroughs,” Toni explains, “from nonverbal Alzheimer’s patients who begin to talk and interact with the horses, to children with autism inspired to pet an animal for the first time. But what’s really amazing is how everyone’s faces light up when we enter a room or walk down the hallway.”
Toni and the Lifting Spirts horses currently bring their unique brand of animal therapy to more than 60 hospitals, Veterans Affairs’ homes, schools, rehabilitation centers and hospice facilities. But it’s not just the school children, residents and patients who benefit, Toni insists that both she and her six minis gain a lot from the program too.
Many of the Lifting Spirits minis were rescued from neglectful homes, kill pens and auctions. Under Toni’s loving care, these once discarded horses find new purpose, bringing smiles to the faces of all who meet them. As for Toni, she says: “Life can take you on amazing journeys and this is the path I am following now. I wouldn’t change it for anything.”
At Team Velvet, a trio of horses help children build self-esteem and resiliency in the face of overwhelming stress and childhood trauma. Velvet, the organization’s namesake, serves as the primary therapy horse for the New Jersey-based nonprofit.
“I purchased Velvet when he was just a foal, drawn to his intuitive ability to read people,” recalls Dr. Susan Edwards, a licensed psychologist and founder of Team Velvet. “I knew right away that together, we would have a shared purpose of working with children.”
Eleven years later, the duo remains the heart and soul of Team Velvet’s equine-facilitated mental health services program. For Susan, incorporating horses into her treatment program was a natural fit. “I’ve always been amazed at the power of a loving heart, in people as well as animals, because it has such a strong healing effect,” she explains. “The love offered by these therapy horses is a powerful strengthener of what is good and resilient in the children we help.”
Make no mistake, this science-based program is no riding camp. In fact, participants never leave the ground. Instead, they work with their therapy horse partners Velvet, Precious and Lil’ Annie to play interactive games and activities. Along the way, they build critical communication skills, increase self-esteem and foster resiliency.
“Every day, children experience the death of a loved one, witness violence, are victims of crimes or intense bullying, are disfigured by accident or face other traumatic events,” Susan explains. “In the extreme, this childhood trauma can cause flashbacks, blackouts, and even make a child want to die. At Team Velvet, we offer a unique service to help.”
American Tribe Equine Therapy
Meet Katie, Masquerade, and Charlie. Katie is big, bold and brave. Masquerade is a little shy, but trusting and playful. Charlie’s a clown, with sparkling eyes filled with mischief. Together, these three Tennessee Walking horses serve as the foundation of American Tribe Equine Therapy, an Illinois non-profit established to promote mental wellness and healing for veterans and their families.
The program’s founder, Vickie Burnette, says the trio of horses naturally gravitate toward those in need, brightening the spirits and healing the souls of veterans from all walks of life. “I’ve watch homeless vets learn to trust, relax and reconnect, as they ride and build relationships with the horses,” she says.
For others, like the older residents at the nearby VA home, the horses bring pure enjoyment every time they visit – especially Charlie. “He has a way of connecting with even the most reluctant residents,” Vickie notes. “It only takes a couple of visits, and soon they’re in the corral brushing and petting him, and spoiling him with carrots.” But if you wear a hat, beware – Charlie’s mischievous side may prompt him to snatch it.
Vickie says she’s watched as the horses transform lives, time and again. There’s Sharon, who suffered a traumatic brain injury. “The injury left her with profound balance and memory issues,” Vickie explains, “but having the opportunity to ride Katie has been life-changing.” And Sylvia, who can forget about the ill-effects of her cancer treatment, as she and Masquerade snuggle.
“These are special horses,” Vickie insists. “They way they interact with people is amazing. Somehow, even in the midst of a crowd, they can pick out the person whose soul is hurting and comfort them with a nuzzle and a hug.”
The Foxie G. Foundation
The Foxie G Foundation has a simple mission, to rescue, rehab and rehome retired Thoroughbred racehorses and broodmares. Through the group’s rescue, rehabilitation, adoption and permanent retirement programs, Foxie G provides a brighter future for horses that faced an uncertain one.
At any given time, Foxie G cares from roughly 100 horses. Some arrive direct from the racetrack; others are saved from the kill pens. The most heart-breaking cases have often been removed from abusive homes. While many of the horses that find their way to Foxie G are successfully rehabilitated and placed in loving homes, some are not viable candidates for adoption. For those animals, Foxie G’s lush fields become their permanent refuge.
It’s not just horses that find a safe haven at Foxie G; the organization also helps felines in need. Feral or non-socialized cats are special focus, as they rarely receive support or care. They live a difficult life, but Foxie G’s feline spay/neuter, colony care, adoption and sanctuary programs give these often-unwanted cats a soft landing after a hard start at life.
BraveHearts Therapeutic Riding & Educational Center
Through the ages, humans have relied on horses for transportation, as beasts of burden and for pure recreation and enjoyment. At BraveHearts, a therapeutic riding center in north central Illinois, dedicated staff rely on specially trained horses for yet another purpose: healing.
Between its two locations, BraveHearts offers hippotherapy, equine-assisted psychotherapy and therapeutic riding, a trifecta of horse-centered programs designed to address clients’ wide-ranging physical, social and behavioral needs. The nonprofit serves a multitude of clients, including children as young as four years old, but it is perhaps best known for its work with military veterans. Today, BraveHearts boasts the largest equine-based program in the nation for retired service members, all at no cost to veterans and a family member/caregiver.
BraveHearts’ equine-based services provide a catalyst for life change, and address many emotional, cognitive, social and physical challenges faced by participants. Among the many benefits, program participants may improve balance and focus, and expand communication skills. Additionally, clients often associate their time at the barn with increased self-esteem, self-worth, trust in others and community integration, coupled with decreased depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms and self-harm thoughts.
Idaho Youth Ranch
For decades, horses have played an integral role in the success of Idaho Youth Ranch, a multi-service agency serving at-risk boys, girls and their families.
Kids who act out are often reacting from deep pain or anger they don’t understand and can’t explain. For abused or neglected kids, trusting anyone—especially an adult—is too great a risk. They learn to protect themselves by shutting out people, making it difficult for a clinician to help a child who can’t or won’t talk about their feelings.
That’s where the Ranch’s horses come in. Interacting with a horse—a sympathetic, gentle giant who doesn’t lie, doesn’t judge, sees through pretense, and communicates without words—can be transformative. At Idaho Youth Ranch, time spent with horses has helped hundreds of kids through a special treatment model called Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP).
In EAP, the horse is part of the treatment team, working alongside an equine specialist and a licensed mental health professional, certified in EAP. The youth don’t saddle up and ride, rather these therapy sessions take place on the ground, as the client and his horse partner work through a series of therapeutic activities together.
Consider Koda, a young teen prone to violent outbursts. He credits the Ranch’s equine therapy program with helping him learn to control his anger. With guidance from the Ranch’s professional staff and its intuitive horses, Koda learned to transform his trauma into something positive. “It took a while,” he admits, “but I learned. To be good with horses you have to keep a cool head, work with them patiently, and keep your temper under control.”
Equine-Assisted Therapies of South Florida
Donald and Beauty are a team. Every Saturday morning, the boy strides confidently into the ring to mount his horse and begin his hour-long equine therapy class. Together, the duo completes a range of activities, all designed to help Donald build muscle, balance and fine motor skills.
Not so long ago, Donald, who struggles with autism and cerebral palsy, slouched in the saddle and couldn’t hold his reins. Today, he rides for a full hour, sitting tall and using his reins to control Beauty. With Beauty’s help, Donald’s balance, gait and core strength have all improved, critical skills that will help him in every facet of his life.
Donald is just one of the more than 135 children and adults who find help and healing annually at Equine-Assisted Therapies of South Florida, a therapeutic riding center that serves those with special needs. As Molly Murphy, the organization’s executive director explains, the typical therapist’s office can be a sterile experience with its harsh lights and cold waiting rooms. While therapy in a clinical setting is important, Equine-Assisted Therapies of South Florida offers a complementary alternative.
Here, surrounded by the nonprofit’s dedicated staff and volunteers, clients pair-up with specially trained horses like Beauty to turn the therapeutic experience upside. “The true beauty of working with horses comes from the simple fact that they do not discriminate or judge,” Molly says. “Our horses level the playing field, giving individuals with special needs an opportunity focus on what they can do, instead of what they can’t.”
BIG Heart Ranch
Thirteen years ago, Suzi Landolphi set out to create a program that would support animals and humans. BIG Heart Ranch (BHR) is the result of her efforts – a place to help disadvantaged children and families recover from trauma, using therapeutic interactions with rescued animals. Along the way, the organization has rescued and rehabilitated dozens of chickens, bunnies, goats, pigs, horses, donkeys, and even a couple of alpacas.
Personal experience served as her inspiration, as Suzie discovered working with horses helped her overcome her own childhood trauma. She became a licensed psychotherapist and soon put her training to work, pairing rescued horses with humans struggling with addition and other mental health issues.
“Animals are non-judgmental and relate to all, regardless of mental health diagnoses, and physical, emotional and intellectual abilities,” she explains, noting that participants with the most challenges often experience the greatest sense of wellbeing at BHR.
The ranch’s certified facilitators and licensed clinicians use experiential learning and therapy models to help clients practice kindness, honesty and integrity. Participants start by interacting with the farm’s horses and other animals, then learn to transfer those qualities to their human relationships.
But it’s not just the humans who find healing at BHR. “Many of our animals were neglected and abused,” Suzie explains. “At BHR, they live in a calm, caring environment where the caretakers help the animals regain trust. As their emotional health improves, so does their physical wellbeing.”
Bennie’s Barn Equine Therapy and Riding Facility
It started with two clients and a simple vision – to lend a hand to horses and kids in need. Four years later, Bennie’s Barn has rescued and rehabilitated 30 horses, using these gentle giants to provide more than 200 therapeutic riding lessons each week.
“You cannot describe the feeling it gives you when you see a child who’s been told they’ll never walk take their first steps,” explains Keith Siragusa, a Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship Instructor at the Barn. “Nor can you explain a mother’s reaction when she hears a child speak for the first time.”
Keith credits the horses for these life-changing moments. Many were rescued from auction houses, where they were destined for foreign slaughterhouses. Others come from abused or neglected environments. “We show them trust, love, nourishment, and respect, and then it comes back ten-fold,” Keith emphasizes.
Today, Bennie’s Barn offers 10 different programs, ranging from therapeutic riding instruction, designed to harness the horse’s natural gait to improve physical mobility, to an option that pairs veterans with horses. But regardless of what brings them to Bennie’s Barn, Keith insists every person and every horse is changed for the better. “Bennie’s Barn is love,” he says simply. “It’s the place where miracles happen.”
Tallapoosa County Girls Ranch
Tallapoosa County Girls Ranch provides a home for school-age girls from troubled backgrounds. For many, the long-term residential program is their first safe place to live, grow and be part of a functioning family. But make no mistake, it’s also a working ranch, complete with cows, chickens and horses, and the girls are central to their care.
Tending to all those animals brings plenty of rewards – but Ranch Director Candice Gulley admits there can be difficulties. “Our animal-based programs teach resiliency,” she explains. “Although you may fall off a horse, dust yourself off and try again. We hope the girls carry this principle with them into their adult lives.”
Those animals are also what sets Tallapoosa apart from other programs designed to help children in crisis. Sure, it’s a hands-on way to teach responsibility and the value of hard work – but Candice says the girls get so much more. “We use these programs to help kids look beyond their past and see a future they can be proud of,” she maintains.
Of course, it’s not all work. All the girls live in family situations at the Ranch, which includes five separate homes, along with a pool, gym, chapel and more. Then there’s the therapeutic benefits of simply being surrounded by nature. Holly Brown, a regular volunteer at the ranch, points out the calming effect animals can have. “Animal-based programs can take away anxiety, fear, depression and build a child’s confidence,” she says.
During her nine years with the organization, Candice and her husband have been “Mom” and “Dad” to 74 girls. In that time, she’s seen plenty of transformation – not just in the children’s outlook on life, but in her own as well. “Working alongside these girls has challenged me to become a better person and role model for kids that need it most,” she contends. “It’s not just a job, these girls are my family.”
Gateway Family Services of IL
In the course of his 27 years, Charlie has endured more than any horse should. Perhaps it’s those life experiences that enable him to sense when he’s needed most. One evening, as he was quietly having supper in his stall, a young girl began to pour her heart out to him, sharing how she would end her life. As she began to cry, Charlie approached her, stretched out his head and gave the hurting girl a hug, pulling her to his chest and holding her tight. In that moment, the young girl realized that she had a friend in Charlie, and with help of her counseling team, began to see a way forward.
A dramatic example, to be sure, but one that clearly illustrates the power of equine-assisted therapy at Gateway Family Services of IL. The non-profit group offers trauma-focused equine-assisted psychotherapy, as well as art, play, sand and nature therapies to help individuals and families reeling from the effects of trauma.
Founded by Michael Remole, the Gateway team brings together clinicians, equine professionals, mentors, respite providers and tutors. This multidisciplinary team works with youth in the foster care system and post-adoption, as well as students and families that have experienced trauma, helping them find hope and healing.
“Our unique approach focuses on building healthy relationships between the student and the horse,” Michael explains. “This model also incorporates rhythmic riding, which helps address the different parts of the brain that have been impacted by trauma.” Unlike traditional “talk” therapy, at Gateway Family Services, clients learn to improve relationships and address challenging behaviors outside the clinical setting. The horses provide a dynamic way to practice those critical skills.
“Many families encounter times when they need additional support,” Michael notes. At Gateway Family Services, those in need can find help – and an occasion hug – from a team of understanding horses and the professional staff who guide each therapeutic session.
Victory Therapeutic Horsemanship
John Zanella knows all too well the struggles many veterans face. During his lengthy military career, the 20-year Army veteran suffered numerous physical injuries, several traumatic brain injuries (TBI) and severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“It was only through a therapeutic riding program that I found the will to keep fighting,” he recalls. Now John strives to bring those same benefits to other veterans through the non-profit he founded, Victory Therapeutic Horsemanship (VTH).
“In many cases, participants have an easier time interacting with animals than they do with their fellow man,” John explains. “Bonds and trust are often easier to form with an animal that has no bias or judgement.” However, while the work starts on the back of a horse, the positive effects extend far beyond the farm gate.
Studies have repeatedly shown that therapeutic riding offers significant benefits for combat veterans struggling with PTSD, TBI and other physical injuries. VTH volunteer Rebecca Davison admits that using equine therapy with veterans is still relatively new, but says the effects are “profound, immediate and lasting.” She adds: “People may not fully understand the concept, but our program not only transforms the veteran’s life, but the lives of those around him or her.”
The central Pennsylvania program is one of the few such organizations in the nation to serve veterans exclusively. For John, it was a natural decision. “I know firsthand the advantages of these programs,” he says. “Now I can bring my experiences as a disabled vet, rider, program volunteer and instructor to my peers.”
The H.O.R.S.E. Center, Inc.
There’s a lot you can learn on the back of a horse. Just ask J’Von:
“My horse … loves me just like I am. He is stubborn like me, but he teaches me to be calm, not get mad and to be nice. Buddy taught me to keep trying and not give up on him or on people. Because of Buddy, I am able to love and be loved…. Thank you Buddy.”
J’Von’s not alone in his experiences. Since its founding in 2003, The H.O.R.S.E. Center has helped more than 10,000 children and adults overcome personal challenges, develop problem-solving skills, and achieve individual and group goals through its equine-facilitated approach to therapy.
But why use horses? “Horses are non-judgmental,” explains Russell Porter, the center’s chief financial officer and equine specialist. “They allow clients to have a safe space to work on their resilience, finding serenity and empowerment.” (Not coincidentally, those ideas also form the basis of the center’s acronym: Helping Oneself be Resilient, finding Serenity and Empowerment – H.O.R.S.E.)
During the sessions at Midland, Texas, facility, a three-member team consisting of a licensed mental health professional, an equine professional and a therapy horse concentrate on improving a client’s physical, sensory, emotional, cognitive, and/or psychological deficiencies. Russell says the resulting progress yields ripple effects that can permeate throughout a client’s life.
“Animals offer honest feedback, acceptance and compassion,” he adds, recalling the daily acts of understanding and love that the center’s horses show. “Together, we’re helping our clients be the best person they can be.”
Every week, more than 200 clients pass through the barn doors at LifeStriders. They come in all ages and with a variety of diagnoses – from spinal cord injuries to Down Syndrome; Alzheimer’s to autism spectrum disorder. Despite their differences, the horses at LifeStriders serve as a uniting force.
Make no mistake, a session at LifeStriders is no ordinary pony ride. Unlike traditional clinics, clients benefit from multiple levels of therapy, as they work with one or more of licensed therapists, three or four volunteers, and a trained therapy horse—all in the non-profit’s soothing, nature-based environment.
“To watch our clients and our horses connect is inspiring and oftentimes downright miraculous,” says Veronica Sosa, the organization’s co-founder. “Together they build empathy, communication skills, problem-solving abilities and physical strength—which clients can then apply to their personal lives, leading to healthier relationships, physical and emotional well-being, and a better quality of life overall.”
The group’s sixteen therapy horses are the key to the program’s success. “When clients help groom, feed, and care for the horses, they tap into a sense of serenity and compassion within themselves,” Veronica explains. “Their levels of aggression and agitation decrease as their empathy and self-confidence flourishes. They learn to be more patient, quiet, and still, avoiding behavioral outbursts.”
Then there’s the time in the saddle. “When clients ride, they enjoy an even more rewarding experience, both physically and emotionally,” Veronica adds. Atop their therapy mount, students improve body strength, balance, agility and mobility, and at the same time, practice communication and problem-solving skills.
“People come to us frustrated, sick, immobile, in pain,” she says. “Whatever their reason, we serve them with compassion, dignity and inclusivity, breaking down any barriers that get in the way of them fully accessing our services.”
Journey of Hope 4 Autism
There’s not much a grandmother won’t do for her grandson. Just ask Victoria Bryant why she started a non-profit that brings equine-assisted services to children with autism.
“My grandson is my inspiration,” she says, explaining that after he was diagnosed with autism, she began working with him on horses. After seeing the change it made in his life, Victoria felt called to offer the same help to other children, and soon, Journey of Hope 4 Autism was born. Situated in rural Virginia, Journey of Hope provides a safe space for children with autism to learn and grow.
“Around our horses, the children get a sense of peace,” Victoria explains, adding that the calming effect can last for hours or even days. “They build muscle and body awareness, while also gaining self-confidence.”
Most of the animals that call Journey of Hope home are rescues, which Victoria and her dedicated team of volunteers rehabilitate and retrain to work with children. The kids get to be part of that process, giving them a chance to learn about compassion and second chances.
Ragan Wiseman is one of those regular volunteers. She admits it takes a lot of hard work to keep Journey of Hope going, but insists the time and sweat she invests is worth it. “Animals can make a difference in ways that people simply cannot do,” Ragan says. “They connect with these kids cognitively, emotionally and physically, and love them unconditionally.”
Victoria concurs, reflecting on the many lives that her horses have changed since the non-profit first opened. “We’ve seen miracles that parents and teachers never thought possible,” she says, “which makes being hot, cold, tired and achy so worth it.”
Freedom Farm of MN
Equine angels. That’s what Susie Bjorklund calls her team of 12 retired show horses. With their help, along with a cadre of dedicated volunteers, Susie brings the benefits of therapeutic riding to special-needs children, veterans and at-risk teens through the non-profit she founded, Freedom Farms.
“It’s been said that ‘in riding a horse, we borrow freedom.’ In 2000, I decided to fulfill a dream to share that freedom with those whose lives, minds and bodies are not as free,” Susie explains. The center boasts all the accoutrements you’d expect in a riding stable, with a indoor arena and scenic outdoor trail. But it’s also home to an on-site, accredited high school, Freedom Academy.
Students participate in a daily class at the Freedom Farm barn, learning to care for their horse. They hone horsemanship skills and learn how to ride, plus they have the opportunity to assist the center’s therapeutic riders, who have special needs.
“Our therapeutic riders and student volunteers all work together with the love and care of the horses as the center of everything we do,” Susie says. “Whether a volunteer or a rider who has autism, cerebral palsy, epilepsy or post-traumatic stress syndrome, we give everyone opportunities to find what they CAN do.”
Long-time volunteer Pamela Frauendienst has witnessed many of those accomplishments. She recalls the children with autism, unable to look or speak to anyone, suddenly making eye contact and talking. And the child with cerebral palsy, who could barely hold himself up in the saddle, that grew so strong he could ride independently. Then there’s the teen who struggled with anger and trust, who learned to calmly lead a horse — without a lead rope.
“I have seen my share of accomplishments and small miracles through Freedom Farm’s dedication and deep love for the children and adults who are helped at each session,” Pamela says. “Their programs reach out to so many who need to build confidence or strength, while providing a place where veterans can feel needed, and teens can find hope for the future.”
Blue Star Ranch
Post-traumatic-stress disorder (PTSD) can have a crippling effect, destroying the marriages, families and lives of military veterans. But Nancy and John Zhe knew they could help. Together, they founded Blue Star Ranch, a unique program that combines Nancy’s 27 years’ experience designing equine therapy programs with John’s military service.
“The VA is overwhelmed with these cases,” Nancy explains, noting that more than 10,000 veterans reside in her hometown of Santa Clarita, Calif., alone. For local veterans struggling with PTSD and other mental health challenges, Blue Star Ranch is often the last resort.
“The veterans who come to us have often been through every kind of traditional therapy to no avail,” she adds. That reality makes Blue Star’s success even more incredible. After just 10 weeks of sessions, program graduates report achieving 35-to 45-percent improvements in anger, anxiety, sleeplessness, nightmares, coping skills and communication.
“After numerous attempts at treatment…I gave up all hope,” recalls one recent graduate. “Then I met the team at Blue Star Ranch and learned about this unique approach to deal with my inner demons.” Like countless others, the army veteran learned to face his fears head on, with the help of his support team – a mental health professional, equine specialist and of course, his therapy horse partner. “I may have trauma forever, but I have learned a lot about how to manage my PTSD,” he continues. “The horses brought and restored hope.”
Unlike many horse-therapy programs, clients don’t ride the horses at Blue Star. Instead, they lead them through a series of exercises designed to improve communication and collaboration skills. “Horses sense emotions and react accordingly,” Nancy says, explaining that those reactions help bring emotional problems to the surface for examination. Perhaps most importantly, the horses give comfort, support and unconditional love. “Animals are some of the best people I know,” she insists.
Equest Therapeutic Horsemanship
For nearly four decades, Equest Therapeutic Horsemanship has pioneered its unique brand of therapy and counseling services, pairing thousands of clients with its distinctive therapy partners – horses.
The north Texas non-profit started humbly enough, with just five riders, two horses, one instructor and 10 volunteers. Fast forward to today, and the program now encompasses 30 horses, 10 instructors, three therapists, one counselor and more than 400 volunteers – serving more than 2,000 clients annually.
As one of the largest equine therapy facilities in the country, children and adults with a wide range of physical, cognitive, sensory, coping, social and learning disabilities come through its doors each day. There, they find hope and healing through physical and occupational therapy, equine-facilitated counseling, therapeutic carriage driving and therapeutic horsemanship.
Equest’s mission is straightforward: to enhance the quality of life of children and adults with diverse needs. However, according to Chrissy Rudd, the center’s equine coordinator, it’s not just the clients who benefit from Equest’s magic. “The volunteers and staff also get to take a slice of that healing for themselves,” she explains. “We’re all beneficiaries of our horses’ special touch.”
Steps and Strides Equestrian Services, Inc.
Rita Nicholson witnessed the benefits of therapeutic riding firsthand, watching as her young daughter with Down Syndrome gained confidence and strength atop a horse. Inspired by the experience, Rita set out to become a certified Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH) instructor and bring the program to other families in need.
After working and managing other therapeutic stables, Rita founded Steps and Strides Equestrian Services, Inc., a non-profit organization dedicated to providing equine-assisted activities for children and adults with a medically diagnosed disability. “We use the whole farm experience to help clients, from the therapy dog to our sheep, cats and donkeys,” she explains. While the horses are the stars, families can also enjoy fishing and nature walks amid the farm’s quiet, peaceful atmosphere.
Steps and Strides is staffed entirely by volunteers and offers its services at no charge. Still, Rita insists she gets far more than she gives. “I am most moved by the confidence that clients get from working with our horses,” she explains, noting that the program’s benefits extend well beyond the barnyard gate. “Parents consistently tell me how it carries over into other areas of their lives.”
Volunteer Gina Morton concurs. “The children learn so much from working with the horses,” she says. “They learn how to interact with this big animal and get physically stronger each week, as they lift saddles, groom horses, attach girths, and get on and off the horses.”
The horses benefit, too. By the time they reach Steps and Strides, most are on their second or third career. For them, the Kentucky-based program offers a chance to remain physically and mentally engaged, surrounded and adored by children.
“This is top-notch horse care at its finest,” Gina insists. “Even after retirement, our horses receive exceptional care.”
Heartland Girls Ranch
The girls who live at Heartland Girls Ranch (HGR) come with all kinds of emotional baggage. Many are struggling with mental, emotional and behavioral challenges; some have experienced significant trauma. But no matter their burden, the horses at HGR stand ready to help residents heal, learn and grow.
It’s all part of the Ranch’s unique therapy program, which matches each girl with a horse to care for during their stay. During their time at the Ranch, the girls learn the basics of horse care – and a lot more.
“Many of our residents arrive broken, lonely and hurt,” explains Ally Goff, the Ranch’s horse program director. “With the help of our horses, they learn positive traits, including confidence, patience, self-esteem and how to love and care for others.”
In a typical year, HGR will serve 60 to 70 girls, providing housing, supportive services, mental health care, and schooling – along with that daily dose of equine therapy. Since each resident has unique goals and needs, the equine-assisted learning programs can look vastly different from one resident to the next.
Ally recalls one resident’s transformative story. The teen was terrified of horses, but over a six-month period, she developed a healthy, strong relationship with a pony named Petey. “The pair did hours of equine-assisted learning, working on activities to manage fear and build trust,” Alley recalls. After months of groundwork, the girl further challenged herself to ride, which required switching to another horse.
With the help of a couple of horses, the troubled teen learned to face her fears, build relationships, establish trust and gained confidence in herself. “It’s amazing to see the change that these horses bring to each resident,” Ally concludes.
Leg Up Therapy
For 28 years, Cyndi Hutson put her training and talents as an occupational therapist to work in traditional clinical settings. Then, fate stepped in. As she was helping a friend overcome anxiety following a severe riding accident, Cyndi discovered hippotherapy – therapy with the help of a horse.
Eight years later, Cyndi now serves as the executive director of Leg Up Therapy, where she treats children and adults with physical, mental and emotional problems, incorporating equine movement into her treatment strategy. Patients with chronic disabilities like autism, cerebral palsy and stroke often “burn out” in traditional therapy settings. Cyndi says that with hippotherapy, clients are more engaged in their treatment, helping them accomplish their goals more quickly.
Then there’s the therapeutic benefits of a horse’s natural gait. The horse moves the rider’s hips and pelvis in the same three planes of motion as when a human walks. This repetitive, rhythmic motion helps organize a disorganized nervous system to improve balance, coordination and core stability. Best of all, it makes therapy a lot more fun.
“It warms my heart to see a wheelchair-bound adult experience the freedom of movement on the back of a horse,” Cyndi explains.
But it’s not just the humans who benefit. Leg Up’s team of equine seem to truly love what they do. As evidence, Cyndi points to one of her “senior” horses, a 27-year-old retired ranch mare: “She waits patiently at the gate anytime a child comes on the property, as if she is saying ‘come take me – I want to help you.’”
Looking Ahead with The Wild Hope
Vanessa, founder and director of The Wild Hope in Austin, TX, knows that the most basic interactions with a horse can mean so much. Before she started the equine therapy program to help the survivors of sex trafficking, she did one-on-one mentoring with survivors. One story relates how the act of looking up while leading a horse can help a person who has faced serious trauma feel human again.
Learn more about the programs at The Wild Hope.
Learn how you can help fight sex trafficking.
The Wild Hope
The Wild Hope in Austin, TX, helps the survivors of sex trafficking by facilitating healthy and collaborative relationships with mustangs. Vanessa, the program’s founder, says that mustangs are especially qualified for this type of therapy because the survivors can see shades of themselves in the stories of the horses. Seeing themselves in the horses helps the survivors build a relationship, and that relationship helps them reflect on themselves.
Vanessa says that the interactions that someone has with one of the mustangs prompts a survivor to look inside themselves and try to understand what challenges they are working to overcome.
Learn more about the programs at The Wild Hope.
Learn how you can help fight sex trafficking.
Lessons Stick on Horseback
Hugs for Horses is an equine therapy program in Georgetown, SC. One of their most frequent visitors is Cory Baldwin, a special education teacher in Georgetown. He brings his class of elementary school students out on a weekly basis. Many of his students are overcoming challenges like autism. He loves watching his students open up around the horses and thinks it’s amazing how much they’re able to learn and retain at Hugs for Horses.
He knows his students can do anything. You just have to give them the right opportunities, and sometimes the right opportunity is on a saddle.
Learn more about the programs at Hugs for Horses.
A Letter to Hugs For Horses
Hugs for Horses, an equine therapy program in Georgetown, SC, loves to hear how their program impacts their riders. One of the many special letters they’ve received from previous clients shows how impactful riding a horse can be.
Learn more about the programs at Hugs for Horses.
Rodgers’ Big Deal
Hugs for Horses is an equine therapy program operating out of Georgetown, SC. Like a lot of equine therapy programs, they help visitors accomplish goals with the help of therapy horses. But unique to Hugs for Horses, their therapy horses are champions, competing in shows across the Carolinas.
For Rodgers, one of the riders in their program, the most important of those shows is in the ring at Hugs for Horses. Every year Hugs for Horses puts on a horse show for all of its riders. And every year Rodgers looks forward to competing. His dad calls it Rodgers’ “big deal,” and it is a big deal. It’s a playing field where all of the riders at Hugs for Horses can feel like they’re on level ground with everyone else. And for Rodgers’ father, it’s a chance to show off how proud he is to have such a great son.
Learn more about the programs at Hugs for Horses
Hugs for Horses
Hugs for Horses operates out of Georgetown, SC. They use current and former show horses to provide equine therapy. The riders they see face various physical, mental, and social disabilities, and they come in all ages and sizes. Hugs for Horses provides stimulation for those who need it. It’s a chance for those riders to have fun on a horse.
And the staff at Hugs for Horses will tell you, it’s a chance to receive therapy without even realizing it. They say that it’s the therapy that doesn’t feel like therapy. Watching a class, it’s easy to see what they mean.
Learn more about the programs at Hugs for Horses.
Charis Youth Ranch
Situated on 35 picturesque acres, Charis Youth Ranch serves as a sanctuary for both children and horses in need of respite and healing. The all-volunteer effort currently cares for 28 rescued horses, many saved from slaughter or removed from neglectful or abusive homes.
Once the horses are sufficiently rehabilitated, they find new purpose at Charis, helping at-risk children through individual and group interactive sessions. Even horses no longer able to be ridden have value at Charis. Their unique story of loss or neglect may connect with a child in a way no therapist can.
The ranch offers three youth-focused efforts, including a 12-week program run in partnership with a local residential treatment facility that serves youth with mental, behavior and substance abuse issues. Through working with the horses, these program participants learn patience, love and respect. They gain self-confidence and begin to make positive behavior changes.
For the youth who come to Charis, the horses provide a shoulder to cry on, a place to learn to trust, a friend to love and so much more. As the Ranch explains on its website: “Horses have a way of breaking down barriers and bringing out the individual where traditional therapy and counseling failed.”
Camelot Therapeutic Ranch
Observe a session at Camelot Therapeutic Ranch and it soon becomes clear, this is not just a pony ride. Against the backdrop of Arizona’s Sonoran Desert, children and adults with physical disabilities build strength, confidence and independence, as they learn to care for and ride the non-profit’s specially trained horses.
It’s a demanding curriculum that covers every facet of horsemanship, including riding, driving, grooming, training, showing, veterinary care, tack maintenance and more. As students learn to care for their horse, they learn to care for themselves. “Independence in the saddle correlates to independence at home,” emphasizes Mary Hadsall, the organization’s executive director.
That singular objective, empowering individuals with physical disabilities, is evident throughout Camelot’s barrier-free, wheelchair-accessible facility. From the mounting ramps to the ADA-accessible horse stalls, it’s possible for students to saddle, ride and groom these horses with minimal help.
“I was once told by a parent that ‘when the child is stuck, the whole family is stuck,’” Mary recalls. “We work alongside each and every rider to help them move forward in their lives.” It’s a philosophy that’s clearly working. Many students who have completed Camelot’s program have gone on to fulfill their goals of higher education and community leadership. Some also choose to return as volunteers, mentoring new students and leading by example.
“The ripple effect of Camelot is so large,” Mary insists. “The confidence and self-worth created here through the magic of equine-assisted activities is making a big different. Simply put, animal therapy works.”
When Jenny Sutherland signed her youngest daughter up for riding lessons, she never imagined where it would lead. But after seeing the change in her daughter, she began a six year journey, which culminated in the founding of Unbridled Hope, an equine-assisted therapy and learning facility.
Jenny still remembers that first lesson: “My tiny, quiet daughter was paired up with a huge horse named Buster. The moment she got on that horse I saw the light come back into her eye and she started to find her confidence.”
Inspired by the transformation in her own child, Jenny became certified in equine-assisted psychotherapy and equine-assisted learning. She and her family purchased a 28-acre ranch and Unbridled Hope was born. In 2018, with the help of her team of 14 horses and a tireless group of volunteers, Jenny helped facilitate over 150 healing sessions, helping children, families and adults scarred by trauma.
True to its name, Unbridled Hope isn’t about riding. Rather, it’s about building relationships. “Nothing we do is forced,” Jenny explains, noting that bridles and harnesses are rarely used. “We don’t physically control our horses; they choose to participate in a session.”
As a result, sessions at Unbridled Hope are really partnerships between the horse and the participant, all supervised by trained facilitators. “Horses have a way of cutting right to the heart of the matter,” Jenny continues. “They’re very intuitive, and have an innate ability to mirror our emotions, ultimately resulting in enhanced self-awareness by our clients.”
In the sessions, horses and clients learn to trust each other and work together, as they complete a series of activities. Along the way, participants gain self-confidence, improve self-control and find hope. “There is no magic formula for how healing happens,” Jenny insists. “Each session is unique because each person and horse is unique. Learning to work together as a team despite our differences and becoming a true partner is what allows our clients to heal.”
Road to Independence
Success takes on many forms. For the differently abled clients served by Road to Independence, it might be leading a donkey through an obstacle course, cleaning out an animal stall, or maybe just getting up the nerve to enter the barn.
“Who would have thought that stacking wood could be a team-building activity, or that mastery of a pitch fork could bring self-confidence?” asks Margaret Coulter, director and founder of Road to Independence, a New Hampshire-based pre-vocational training program for individuals with mental and physical challenges.
Donkeys are a big part of the program, animals known for their cautious demeanor. “While horses might run, donkeys are more apt to choose to stand and not move,” Margaret explains, noting their reputation for stubbornness. “To work with the donkeys, our participants have to establish a relationship with the animals based on trust.”
Clients learn to halter, lead and care for the group’s nine donkeys. Along the way, they also build critical life skills, including communication, team work and the ability to follow directions. For many participants, working at Road to Independence may be the first time they’ve been in charge of anything. “If they’re leading the donkey, they are making the decisions, directing the donkey where to go,” Margaret notes. “On the outside, it may look like we are just visiting with donkeys, but often the interactions for our participants are life changing.”
The New Hampshire-based non-profit regularly takes its clients and donkeys on the road, visiting area senior care facilities, attending the local farmer’s market, walking in numerous parades and participating in donkey shows. In these community settings, the clients are the experts, showcasing their skills and knowledge.
“There are few other avenues in the community where individuals with developmental disabilities can actively participate on an equal footing with their able-bodied community members,” Margaret points out. But the best part, she says: “Witnessing the joy on a participant’s face when the task at hand – however simple or complex – is completed to the best ability possible.”
Quiet Waters Ranch
Amanda Luther, co-founder and director of Quiet Waters Ranch, follows a simple equation toward health and wellness: Fresh air, peaceful surroundings, and lots of animals.
“In my opinion, animals and fresh air can solve the problems in our soul in ways that traditional therapies cannot,” she opines. “There’s just something about getting back to nature that no other method can duplicate.”
With that philosophy at its heart, the Minnesota-based ranch incorporates animal-centric, outdoor activities into its many day camp programs. According to Amanda, it’s often the simplest things that prove the most beneficial, ranging from feeling a horse breathe to collecting eggs to watching goats at play.
“Many of the people we work with are not, at least initially, comfortable jumping on the back of 1,200-pound horse,” Amanda admits, explaining that instead of riding, many of their programs focus on relaxation, sensory activities and inspiring an appreciation for animals. However, when and if clients are comfortable, the non-profit also offers mounted therapy and Special Olympics Equestrian programs.
Quiet Waters’ mission is backed by numerous studies demonstrating the benefits of animal therapy, which Amanda says has been shown to help build confidence, reduce stress, improve mental well-being, boost social skills, encourage responsibility and create a sense of purpose. “Animal therapy lowers your blood pressure, soothes your soul and clears your mind,” she contends. “To me, it’s the best treatment in the world.”
Aiken Equine Rescue
Jim Rhodes found his life’s passion the day he took on management of the then newly established Aiken Equine Rescue. In the ensuing 18 years, the 90-acre farm has placed more than 900 horses into loving, adopted homes, becoming the largest horse rescue center in the southeastern United States. At any given time, between 60 and 70 horses reside at the farm.
In this regard, Aiken Equine has achieved its original purpose: to provide a temporary home for ‘displaced’ horses as they waited to be adopted, but somewhere along the way, the organization’s mission expanded.
“As we helped these horses find homes, we realized it also provided us a platform to use our horses to help people,” Jim explains. Today, the rescue center partners with Aiken County’s early-intervention program for first-time offenders. “To complete their community service, offenders learn that must manage their emotions or our horses will avoid them,” Jim explains. Since the non-profit began working with the Aiken County Courts, more than 500 offenders and at-risk youth have participated in the program.
The rescue center also works with the Saratoga WarHorse program, a national effort to assist military veterans suffering with post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD). Through this unique, three-day program, Saratoga uses equine therapy to reduce veterans’ symptoms of depression, post traumatic stress and suicidal thoughts. As part of this program, nearly 80 veterans visit the farm annually.
Both programs are effective in part because of the nature of the horse. “Horses are naturally skittish and hyper-vigilant,” Jim says. Sensitive to anxiety and subdued anger, horses are also quick to pick up on verbal and non-verbal cues, providing immediate feedback to participants.
Still, at Aiken Equine Rescue, it’s the horses that come first. “Our entire organization is dedicated to giving horses second chances and new, joy-filled lives, and giving people revitalized, re-energized horses, each with a renewed sense of purpose and dignity,” Jim emphasizes.
When Ginger Salido started Exodus Farms, she imagined a place where troubled kids could find hope and healing in a safe, accepting farm environment. Sixteen years later, her vision impacts the lives of 90 to 100 children every week.
“We use horses that have been discarded and rehabilitate and retrain them so that they can help the children in our community who have also been cast aside,” Ginger explains. “Always, we strive to give value and purpose to both the horse and the human.”
Jenni Patterson, who now serves as the farm’s “head wrangler,” recalls the first time she visited the farm, two teenage girls in tow. Ginger put them to work with Missy, an anxious mare who’d bounced through a long string of neglectful owners before arriving at Exodus Farms. “Both of those girls had been through several homes themselves, and they immediately connected with Missy’s story,” Jenni explains.
In the ensuing years, hundreds of children have made similar connections with the farm’s herd of rescued horses. They come to learn the basics of horsemanship and riding. Along the way, they rebuild self-esteem, overcome fear, learn responsibility and accountability, and develop respect for themselves and others. The results, says Jenni, are easy to see.
“Kids who were withdrawn and shut down run to our volunteers for hugs; kids who were angry and out of control spend a whole session calmly following instructions and being patient with their horse; kids who were terrified to walk the horse by themselves canter confidently across the arena,” she explains. “Success looks different for each one, but at Exodus Farms, everyone’s success is celebrated.”
Autrey Mill Nature Preserve and Heritage Center
The animal ambassadors are a big draw at Autrey Mill Nature Preserve and Heritage Center, located in Johns Creek, Georgia. The nature center’s chickens, ducks and rabbits offer visitors a chance to touch, feed and learn about farm animals.
Some, like Sally the Chicken, even embark on adventures outside the preserve’s 46-acre site, visiting local libraries and schools. “Every day, our animal ambassadors teach the community the importance of kindness toward all the creatures on earth,” explains Mary Winder, the center’s education and program director. In return, Mary says she’s inspired by the delight of visitors as they explore and observe the native reptiles and farm animals that call Autrey Mill home.
In 2018, more than 5,500 individuals attended one of the nature center’s many programs. Through these educational initiatives, children, youth and adults learn about the environment, the region’s history, and the importance of protecting the ecosystem and caring for the animals who live here.
Mary notes that many of Autrey Mill’s animals were gifted from the community. “Most of them were taken in from individuals who had kept them as pets,” she explains, adding that their stories provide an opportunity to advocate for research and forethought before pet acquisitions.
Angel Heart Farm
Six-year-old Gaige had never touched a pony, but he was in good hands with Rocky, a show ring pro. Together, the two teamed up to compete at the Welsh Pony Nationals, walking away with a National Championship ribbon. An impressive feat made all the more inspiring given Gaige had recently been diagnosed with cancer and was in the midst of treatment.
Tracy Kujawa, founder and executive director for Angel Heart Farm, brought the two together, just one of the hundreds of children and families her organization has helped. “Cancer is hard,” the four-time cancer-survivor acknowledges. “It robs children of their childhood. It’s scary, painful, isolating and the long-term effects are endless.” But at Angel Heart Farm, children facing life-threatening illnesses have a place to focus on something besides diagnoses and treatments.
Since opening its doors 18 years ago, more than 350 children and their families have saddle up for Angel Heart’s unique brand of horse therapy. “After volunteering at many equine therapy programs, I knew what I liked and didn’t like,” Tracy says, which is why Angel Heart is a family-focused, one-on-one experience.
The kids, side-by-side with their siblings and parents, receive professional horsemanship lessons. More than just a riding class, at Angel Heart Farm children learn how to care for their favorite horse, empowering them as caregivers instead of care recipients. Like Gaige, many participants even go on to compete in horse shows – all at no cost to the families served.
“We are very blessed to have the most giving and loving equine in the world,” Tracy insists. “While we can’t cure cancer, with the help of our amazing horses, we can bring hope, faith and love to these special families.”
West Virginia Horse Network
When Summer arrived at the West Virginia Horse Network’s (WVHN) rehab facility, she was emaciated and hobbled by split front hooves, a clear case of long-standing mistreatment and neglect. Yet with medical attention, a proper diet and plenty of love, it wasn’t long before the resilient mare was ready to move to a foster farm.
Abigail Rhodes, a then 16-year-old volunteer, become her foster – and it was on the Rhodes family farm where Summer showed the extent of the abuse she had endured. “She would lash out, kick and bite, whenever I tried to work with her,” Abigail recalls, but with patience and tenacity, Summer grew to trust and respect the young trainer. It turns out, all that hard work wasn’t just for Summer’s benefit.
“With Summer in my life, my laundry list of mental health issues and suicidal tendencies were reduced to almost nothing,” Abigail explains. “Summer saved me just as much as I helped save her.” Given their special connection, it’s no surprise that the teen went on to adopt Summer. “No matter how hard things get, I know she’ll always be there for me,” Abigail emphasizes.
Since its inception in 2014, West Virginia Horse Network has helped rehabilitate and find homes for more than 50 horses. While rehabilitating rescued horses is the organization’s primary mission, they also engage in community outreach, offering beginner horse camps, “Read to a Rescue” day and a Barn Buddies Leadership program, which teaches youth about confidence and leadership by working with rescued horses.
People of all ages and backgrounds are drawn to West Virginia Horse Network. “Whether they have a wealth of equine experience or are just learning about horses, our volunteers benefit as much as the horses they’re helping,” contends Nicky Walter, one of the founding members of the non-profit group. “We’ve witnessed volunteers overcome anxiety, depression – even addiction – as they give their heart to rescue horses and to our mission of saving them.”
Overseeing the organization’s operations often means long nights, but Nicky knows she’s making a difference. “Seeing the horses transformed during the rehabilitation process, then connecting them with caring, adoptive families is the greatest gift,” she explains. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Image of Hope
The horses at Image of Hope Ranch come from varied backgrounds. Some were rescued from abusive environments; others were “retired” and in need of a new purpose. Regardless of their history, they offer unconditional love to all who visit.
The ranch, located in northeastern Indiana, serves as a sanctuary for emotionally struggling individuals of all ages. “Our goal is to provide a space where guests can let go of their troubles, even if it’s for an hour,” explains Alisha Shank, who founded Image of Hope Ranch. During that 60-minute session, guests are paired with a horse or pony, and a trained leader. Through hands-on activities, guests are taught the value of hope, family, trust, faith and unconditional love, all at no cost.
During a session, guests may groom, pet, work with or ride a horse. Leaders select activities based on the comfort level and needs of the child or adult. “We work hard to pair everyone with a horse that will help them move forward in their life,” Alisha explains, noting that horses view people as members of their herd. As the build relationships with clients, the horses help them heal and grow stronger.
It’s not just the people who find respite at the ranch. Many of the horses have also endured neglect, abuse or even starvation. Often the horses arrive at Image of Hope in need of rehabilitation themselves. “We work with the horses to help them regain trust as well,” extols Tisha Travis, one of the ranch’s many volunteers.
“At the end of the day I may be exhausted, but as I walk to the house and reflect back on the sessions held that day, it always gives me joy,” Alisha emphasizes. “The lives that are changed for the better, the hope that our guests feel, the goals that they set, and the healing that takes place is what Image of Hope Ranch is all about.”
Since 2010, Hope Reins has helped over 2,000 children in life crisis, offering them hope and healing amid its scenic 33-acre ranch and small herd of rescued horses.
According to Christy Burkey, director of marketing and communications for the non-profit, equine-therapy can be especially beneficial for those who have undergone significant trauma. “Many times, kids can’t verbalize their feelings, but they just need to be around a caring human and a loving animal to create a bond of trust,” she explains. “It’s only then, when they feel safe, that they can begin to heal and face the pain.”
Perhaps it helps that all of the non-profit’s horses have a story of rescue, including some who suffered significant abuse and neglect. Christy says that shared connection can serve as a bridge to hope for the kids and their families.
Part of what makes Hope Reins so special is the extraordinary connection between organization’s trainers and its horses. The special friendship forged between Anne Sanders and Cadence, a 37-year-old Morgan horse, exemplifies the kindness, patience, and compassion that permeates the entire ranch.
Cadence arrived severely underweight and suffering from a debilitating hoof condition called laminitis. Even when she couldn’t move or lower her head, volunteers would cradle her feed bucket in their arms, so she could eat. Anne made Cadence her project, sitting with her for hours at a time – grooming, petting and just loving her.
“I was drawn to Cadie because she needed me,” Annie explains. “She changed my life forever and I will always be grateful to her.” Unlike most horses with chronic laminitis, because of the care she received at Hope Reins, Cadence passed away not because of her illness, but simply because of old age.
Atop a well-trained horse, dreams really do come true. Just ask the special-needs children and adults who make the weekly trek to Equine Dreams.
The therapeutic riding center relies on patient horses, along with a trained staff of nine Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH) registered instructors, to nurture abilities for the nearly 100 clients they serve each week. Access for all is of paramount importance, which is why Equine Dreams’ clients are never saddled with any costs.
Founded in 1996 by Rick and Sharon Mason, the Illinois-based non-profit has a singular mission: to improve the quality of life for children and adults with special needs. In the ensuing years, the Masons’ have seen that mission realized time and time again.
As Windy Kopecky, a board member and PATH instructor explains, riding a horse mimics the same three-dimensional pelvic movement that occurs when walking. For clients with mobility issues, time on the horse’s back can lead to improved balance, mobility, muscle control and posture. Additionally, the horses offer unconditional acceptance, and a place to practice self-control, gain self-confidence, improve motor planning and have some fun, too.
However, it may be the social benefits that are most apparent. “The animals have a powerful impact on relationship building, teamwork and self-esteem,” says Nikki, a regular volunteer. “I’ve found that for those who struggle to connect with other people, learning to build relationships with animals can be a great starting point.”
At Equine Dreams, riders don’t just learn basic riding skills, they also assist with grooming, feeding and caring for the animals. It’s all part of the program to improve students physically, mentally and socially. “We see goals met each and every day at our program,” Windy emphasizes, noting that sessions are individually tailored to meet the physical, emotional, social and cognitive needs of each participant.
While therapeutic riding remains the primary focus at Equine Dreams, the center also offers bedside miniature horse visits, a veteran’s program and lessons on a life-size horse simulator – all at no charge. Volunteers (along with grants and donations) keep the organization going. And what keeps the volunteers going? According to Windy, it’s the opportunity to make a real difference in the lives of those they serve.
JP and Tiny Tim
Tiny Tim is a special needs miniature horse — his legs are twisted at the knee. It’s a little more difficult for him to walk, but he still makes the rounds as well as any of his peers. When he was found by Kelly King, the executive director at Flames to Hope, she realized that he would need a little bit of extra love. Luckily, the guests at Flames to Hope are more than willing to give him that love.
JP, a young man on the autism spectrum, is one of those guests. He comes out to Flames to Hope with his grandparents often to see Tiny Tim specifically. JP relates more to Tiny Tim than any of the other horses. When asked about their relationship, JP’s grandmother says, “Tiny Tim is special needs himself, so they have kind of a special rapport there.” When you see JP and Tiny Tim together, that rapport becomes very apparent.
Their relationship has been great for JP outside of Flames to Hope as well. His grandparents say that the immediate connection JP formed with Tiny Tim and the other miniature horses has had a calming effect. He seems more relaxed now, and JP’s grandmother attributes it to the unconditional love of Tiny Tim and the other horses. She says, “They don’t care who you are. They don’t care if you’re autistic.” That’s certainly true. Tiny Tim and the other horses are just happy to have another close friend.
Whispering Manes is an equine-assisted therapy program in Miami, FL. Erin Bower, the executive director at Whispering Manes, describes it as a place where people with a wide range of disabilities are welcome to work with horses, with the hope of encouraging physical, mental, and emotional healing and strengthening. That healing only happens through the work of an amazing staff and connections formed with some incredible horses.
The people who come out to visit have many different struggles. Some of them seek to improve their confidence, others have physical disabilities, or emotional challenges, and equine-assisted therapy has something for every single one of them. Christina DeQuesada, volunteer and special education professional, says that you can see a bit of every type of therapy at Whispering Manes. She compares it to aspects of occupational, physical, and even emotional therapy. Learning to ride a horse can positively touch a number of different elements of anyone’s life.
Robin Bramson, the Head Riding Instructor and Program Director, explained how much riding a horse can improve a person’s communication, both verbally and nonverbally. She says, “A horse gives you immediate feedback and it’s nonjudgmental…horses are herd animals and they have no spoken language so they depend on reading body language of other horses.” She continues, “They depend on reading body language of people for their survival.” Robin says that all of the little things you do on a horse can translate into life skills that can be used out of the saddle — the way you’re talking to other riders and people around you, and the way you’re signaling the horse. All of those things add up to make a very special experience that’s hard to find with any other animal.
Jenny rides horses at Whispering Manes. She brushes them. She helps feed them and care for them. She’s also legally blind, and overcoming low self-esteem. Riding horses makes her feel better about herself.
Jenny started coming to Whispering Manes as a volunteer. She served as a side walker, helping riders maintain correct form while on the horse. But she still had her own confidence issues, and serving as a side walker wasn’t helping with those. She wanted to be on the horses.
Then one of the staff members told her that her legally blind status might allow her to take lessons with Whispering Manes. Since then Jenny has taken several lessons. She says that in under a year’s time she’s gone from hardly being able to get on the horse by herself to performing various balance exercises. She’s not just riding, she’s getting good at riding. She’s building her confidence, and she’s building a connection with the horses she rides.
That connection is one of the most important things to Jenny. The horses feel like friends to her, and she can’t believe the level of trust they have in their riders. Jenny says, “I mean it’s just cool because it’s this huge animal, you know, and you’re able to have a bond and a trust with it.”
Flames to Hope
Flames to Hope started when Kelly King and her husband, Ron, decided to march with their miniature horse, Trigger, in a parade. They had such a great response that they wanted to share Trigger and their other mini horse, Reba, with more people. They decided to start with people who might not normally be able to get out to interact with animals, and brought their two mini horses into a nursing home in Noble, OK.
One of the staff members remarked that it was a perplexing sight to see a horse roaming the halls of their care facility, but the joy that Reba and Trigger brought to the residents was amazing. Kelly says that the horses took right to it, particularly Reba, who would not let a resident walk by without at least giving her a pat on the head. Since then, Flames to Hope has expanded greatly.
Kelly and Ron have sectioned off part of their property to create an on-site facility where people can come out to interact with their horses. They’ve also taken in a lot more horses. Kelly says that the space has become a defacto miniature horse sanctuary, bringing in miniatures that need a home from all around the surrounding area. It’s good that they’ve brought in so many, because the minis have a lot of jobs to do.
Flames to Hope still visits care facilities with their Hope and Honor program, serving more than 80 across Oklahoma, but now they also have room for guests to visit them on site. Their Navigating Life program helps people of all ages who have experienced emotional trauma, have mental disabilities, or struggle with substance abuse. Their Read at Ease program gives kids who struggle with reading a chance to read in a non-judgemental environment to miniature horses. The people and horses at Flames to Hope even offers team-building workshops through their Tactical Teamwork program.
When Trigger first marched in that parade, no one expected any of this to happen, let alone Kelly and Ron. They serve so many people. The miniature horses of Flames to Hope are role models for us to look up to, which is impressive since most of them are barely over three feet tall.
Gwen and Reba
Reba likes getting dressed up. She likes being outside. She likes having stories read to her. Reba is also a miniature horse.
In fact, she’s one of the star miniature horses at Flames to Hope, an equine-assisted therapy program in Noble, OK, which exclusively uses miniature horses to connect with people. They work with people of various challenges, ages, and backgrounds. Reba is heavily involved with Flames to Hope’s Read at Ease program, which allows children who lack confidence while reading the ability to practice in front of mini horses.
One of the kids who reads to Reba regularly is Gwen. She’s been visiting Reba and Flames to Hope for awhile now, and in that time the results have been amazing. Gwen’s mother decided to put Gwen in the Read at Ease program at Flames to Hope in an attempt to boost her daughter’s reading level, acknowledging that the whole idea sounded a little weird at first. And when you look at the process, it can seem a bit out of the ordinary.
When Gwen comes in to visit Reba, she usually puts on a quick fashion show with the mini horse — dressing Reba in different clothing and accessories as a way to loosen up. Then the reading begins, and that’s where the true magic happens. Like Gwen’s mother puts it, her daughter is able to open up with the horse. Gwen can read to Reba, and she can make mistakes while doing it. She doesn’t have to worry about being criticized mid-sentence. It may seem like a strange way to learn on the surface, but the results have been hard to argue with.
Gwen’s reading performance has jumped up four levels in just four months, and her mother has noticed her daughter’s added confidence. Gwen really likes reading now. She even says that it’s fun to come out and read to Reba, and Reba never gets tired of hearing new stories.
Learn more about the programs at Flames to Hope
Javier and Ben
Eleven years ago, Javier lived in his home country of Spain. Eleven years ago, Javier was paralyzed from the waist down after a car accident crushed part of his spinal cord. Even after surgery to repair the damage, he was told that walking would be unlikely. Even his parents had reservations about his recovery.
Javier didn’t accept that. He moved across the Atlantic to Miami, FL to pursue a heavy physical therapy program. That’s when he was introduced to Whispering Manes, and the people and horses there.
Whispering Manes is a therapeutic riding program in Miami, FL. They work with people who have different levels of horse riding ability and who have varying types of disabilities. His physical therapist highly recommended that he attend classes — or almost forced him to attend, to hear Javier put it.
It was clear to the staff at Whispering Manes that Javier wasn’t a horse person. The horses didn’t care, they helped anyway. He may not have liked the idea of working with horses at first, but it was hard not to notice how much improvement he was making. Javier’s attitude toward the horses has gone from sour to a cautious optimism, and that only seems to keep improving as his connection grows stronger with the horse he works with most, Ben.
Ben is a cross between a draft horse and a paint horse, and Erin, the executive director at Whispering Manes, describes him as having the best qualities of both. Ben is the second horse that Javier has worked with at Whispering Manes, and he’s the horse that Javier has had the deepest connection with. Javier even refers to Ben as a friend — something he never expected to call any of the horses before starting. And now all of the hours of therapy with Ben and on his own are paying off for Javier. He recently took his first step under his own power since the accident. He’s confident there will be many more.
Learn more about the programs at Whispering Manes
A Sanctuary for Animals – Big and Small
It started with a single horse named Andi. When Rosa Buonomo first met the 20-year-old mare, she was in serious trouble, struggling to fight off a raging infection and suffering after years of neglect. “I called every rescue organization I could find, but no one would help her,” Rosa recalls, “so, I ended up taking her on myself.”
It proved to be a transformative decision, leading Rosa to launch SBF Animal Rescue in 2014. Four years and 87 horses later, Rosa continues to open her heart – and her farm – to abused animals of stripes. “Our motto is ‘big or small, we take them all,’” she says with a smile. True to her word, SBF has been home to pigeons, deer, peacocks, emus, geese, ducks, chickens, rabbits, guinea pigs, cats, cows – even pheasants and a fox.
For Rosa and the volunteers who help keep SBF going, the goal is to rehabilitate the abused animals, then place them with caring families. But, she admits, some animals are just too damaged to leave SBF. “I’ve had horses that are so starved, they can’t even walk,” she laments. Fortunately, most animals that find their way to SBF thrive under Rosa’s care.
It’s not just animals that flourish on the 26-acre farm. In 2017, SBF partnered with the local school district to connect special educations students with the organization’s work. Katherine, a school social worker and SBF volunteer, helped create the “Helping Hands” program, which combines classroom learning with on-site visits to the animal rescue farm.
“Horses and kids are a good combination, both for learning and healing,” Katherine explains. “The horses perk up when the school bus comes, and the kids made huge gains behaviorally, socially and emotionally.” As part of the program, the children planted a garden, learned about animal anatomy and health, and even wrote letters to their horse “pen pals.” But the biggest benefits went beyond academics.
“Too often, these kids feel like no one believes in them, no one hears them,” Katherine continues. “But coming here, they realized they had a purpose: to care for and become advocates for these animals. That was the surprising takeaway for me, the kids found a place where they really belonged.” The neglected animals who are nursed back to health at SFB Animal Rescue would surely agree.
Students Saddle Up to Learn Life Skills
Scholl Community Impact Group has a singular mission: to impact the lives of individuals with physical, cognitive or emotional disabilities through meaningful interactions with horses. Led by Scholl’s patient equine team – Roanie, Norm, Wrangler, Flip and Marshall – children and adults across northern Wisconsin are building muscle strength, improving eye-hand coordination, refining social skills and gaining self-confidence, all while learning to ride and care for these gentle giants.
The Winchester, Wisconsin-based program is a labor of love for Lenelle Scholl, who started the non-profit in 2009. In the ensuing years, she’s partnered with area schools, working side-by-side with teachers, caseworkers and families to incorporate equine-assisted therapy into students’ Individual Education Programs.
At Scholl, it’s the horses who are the true teachers, each with its own unique skill set. For example, Roanie, who Lenelle describes as the head school master of the group, has a special connection with children on the autism spectrum. “It’s amazing how these kids, because of the bond they have with Roanie, will do things for him way outside their normal behavior,” Lenelle says, explaining that she’s witnessed non-verbal children learn to say his name and give commands.
Some students are reluctant at first, but Lenelle insists the horses always win them over. She remembers one especially averse high school student. “She didn’t like dirt, and she didn’t want to be touched,” Lenelle explains, remembering how difficult it was to coax the girl onto a horse. But after a few sessions, the student had a completely different attitude. “She would jump out of the van, run to the barn, grab her saddle and bridle, and be ready to rock and roll,” Lenelle recalls.
Infusing each lesson with a healthy dose of fun is part of Scholl’s secret to success, but the program’s benefits go much deeper. By learning to control their 1,600-pound horses, program participants gain self-confidence and self-esteem; at the same time, they practice critical life skills like decision-making and responsibility. Equally important, the students transfer their newly honed skills into their lives outside the barn, with both schools and families reporting noticeable behavioral differences.
Lenelle acknowledges that most of the program’s participants face considerable challenges, but says at Scholl, the focus is on possibilities, not disabilities. For nine years, the organization has been living that promise, using an amazing group of horses to transform the lives of families throughout Wisconsin’s Northwoods region.
Horses Offer Refuge to Those in Need
When Patti Mandrell and her husband Randy started Refuge Services in 1999, they weren’t looking to be trailblazers. They simply thought that by bringing their two professional worlds together (she was a licensed counselor; he was a skilled horse trainer) they could harness the healing power of horses. The couple ended up pioneers all the same, becoming the first to run a certified “out-patient” equine-assisted therapy program in Texas.
Twenty years later, their non-profit organization serves more than 160 clients each week, providing a unique therapeutic setting for physical and occupational therapy, as well as mental health counseling. While the majority of their clients are children and teens, the Refuge also offer programs for adults, including veterans.
In particular, Patti calls out the work they’ve done with veterans struggling with traumatic brain injury and post traumatic stress. She says the horse’s rhythmic gait can help start the healing process, helping injured veterans get back on their feet and become productive citizens once more.
Patti admits that horses can be big and intimidating, especially for her youngest clients, but says they can also help heal, strengthen and teach. “These animals have the ability to touch people in a way that sometimes humans cannot,” she explains. For clients with mental health or behavioral issues, the horses provide unconditional friendship and deliver immediate, honest, and observable feedback. For those with physical disabilities, the simple act of riding helps improve flexibility, balance and muscle strength.
As for the horses, they benefit as well. “Our horses love this work, especially all the hugs and the kisses they get from our clients,” Patti says. “They may have retired from their full-time career, but this is an opportunity for them to continue to engage with people.”
In their spare time, Patti and Randy travel around the world, helping others develop similar programs. But the couple relish their time at their Lubbock ranch. “This place is a refuge for people to heal, to find hope, to rediscover themselves, made possible by their interaction with the horses” Patti explains, “For us, it’s such a privilege to be able to walk with people through that journey.”
Farm Animals Facilitate Learning
For Elisa Peskin, Back in the Saddle (BITS) is the realization of a lifelong goal, bringing individuals – especially those with special needs – together with horses and other farm animals. In this unique program, animals facilitate the learning, helping participants improve their social, emotional and physical well being – in a fun and supportive environment.
Since launching the program in 2016, she’s watched as children with special needs and behavior challenges overcome obstacles, achieve goals and form meaningful relationships with their animals. “They help develop confidence, self-esteem and leadership skills, and teach patience and compassion,” she explains. “But perhaps most importantly, the animals help bring out love and show us how to build relationships.”
At BITS, it’s not just a fun pony ride. Learning begins the moment an individual sets foot on the farm, starting with how to properly greet a horse. “Through a range of activities, we work on developing relationships not just with their horse, but also the other volunteers, peers and caregivers present,” Elisa notes. Hands-on activities, from catching their horse to opening a gate latch, allow participants to practice fine and large motor skills. Other life skills, like cooperation, self-confidence and responsibility, are also woven into each session.
She attributes much of the program’s success to her animals’ nonjudgmental nature. “Animals don’t care if a kid’s in a wheelchair or has limited verbal skills,” she adds. “It’s truly humbling to watch a non-verbal child form a bond with an animal; I get goosebumps every time.”
In the two years since its inception, Back in the Saddle has grown to include a mobile outreach effort, which brings Elisa’s animals into the community. “When we started, we knew there would be individuals who couldn’t come to our facility,” she explains. Through her Farm Friends Therapy Animals program, Elisa brings roosters, ducks, goats, pigs, chinchillas, miniature horses and donkeys to libraries, school classrooms, group homes, assisted living facilities and more. In these settings, participants practice social skills, while benefiting from emotional and physical interactions with animals.
Whether on the farm, or as part of the mobile outreach, the goal is the same: creating a positive impact on individual’s lives. “I often think of it as “non-therapy” therapy,” Elisa explains, “because while the kids are focused on the animals, they accomplish so much more.”
Jamie’s Ranch: A Special Place for Special People
Everyone needs a place to have fun. That simple statement is the vision behind Jamie’s Ranch, a place where all ages and abilities come to enjoy a day of pony rides, petting zoo animals and a wide variety of other inclusive activities.
Sheri Mitzel remembers the first time she truly understood the need for Jamie’s Ranch. She and her husband Roger hosted an end-of-the-year party for their daughter Jamie’s special-needs classmates and their families. For many of the children, it was the first party they had been invited to attend.
One young girl made a big impression. She desperately wanted to ride a horse but was nearly paralyzed by fear. With patience and encouragement, Roger coaxed the girl onto a horse. “Before it was all over, we couldn’t get her off,” Sheri recalls. A week later, the girl’s teacher called with an update. The young student was applying that same newfound courage to other aspects of her life.
“It was transformational,” Sheri explains, noting that in the ensuing years, she has received many similar calls. “I really believe that animals are an equalizer for these children; they bring some balance back into their life.” Long-time volunteer Francie Anderson agrees: “Animals don’t discriminate. They’re just happy with the attention.”
While the first groups to visit were Jamie’s classmates, Sheri and Roger could see how much the children thrived in the safe, inclusive environment. After their daughter’s death from Batten disease, a rare neurodegenerative disorder, the Mitzels dreamed of bringing the experience to more children. Eight years later, they formally launched Jamie’s Ranch.
“When we were raising Jamie, it was so hard to find different things for her to do – especially activities we could do as an entire family,” Sheri remembers. “I think that’s one of the things we do really well at Jamie’s Ranch. The whole family can come, even older siblings, and they all have fun.”
The Ranch isn’t just for kids. Because Jamie’s Ranch appeals to all ages, Sheri estimates half of their visitors are special-needs adults. “It’s easy to forget as they get older, they still crave new experiences,” she explains, noting that some of their adult guests rarely get to spend time outside. Like the youngsters, these older visitors get great joy riding horses, feeding animals and participating in all the Ranch has to offer.
“It’s just amazing when you see what animals can do,” Sheri concludes. “The impact our animals have is nothing short of miraculous.”
It’s a New Day for the Horses at Sunrise
In their previous life, the horses that call Sunrise home were often severely neglected, abused and abandoned, sometimes found starving and alone. But once they arrive at Sunrise Horse Rescue, they begin a new chapter — one where they receive plenty of food, high-quality veterinary care and perhaps most important, boundless love.
Each horse has its own heart-wrenching story. Pace was a packhorse used to carry tourists’ gear in and out of the Grand Canyon under appalling conditions of abuse and starvation. “When we got him, he was skin and bone, hundreds of pounds underweight, covered in terrible sores, infected with parasites and pneumonia,” recalls Lindsay Merget, managing director for Sunrise Horse Rescue. Once well enough to travel, Pace was transported to his new home at the Napa, Calif., stable. “Despite everything he went through at the hands of humans, Pace will greet anyone who comes to his stall,” Lindsay says. “It’s a testament to his forgiving nature that he gave us a second chance to do right by him.”
Sunrise Horse Rescue was founded to save horses like Pace, but along the way its mission grew. Now the non-profit also provides a place where community members of all ages can learn life-enhancing skills, all while caring for the rescued horses. “Our primary goal is to save these horses, but what ends up happening is they save us,” Lindsay says.
Highly intuitive by nature, horses are quick to recognize and react to human’s nonverbal cues. “If a person is anxious and nervous, the horse will mirror that back,” Lindsay explains, noting the growing use of horses as therapy animals.
Groups from around the region come to visit the non-profit, from developmentally disabled adults to Boy and Girl Scout troops. At Sunrise, they learn to care for, groom and walk the rescued horses – and along the way, gain firsthand appreciation for the magnificent animals. “Horses have so much more value than what society has historically assigned them,” Lindsay insists. At Sunrise, volunteers and visitors experience that value every day.
A Special Place for Horses and Humans
Special Equestrians of Georgia (SEG) has a focused goal, to provide a supportive environment that empowers all types of riders, through equine assisted activities, to reach their full potential. How they execute on that goal, is a beautiful mix of programs that focus on the need of the individual.
Their therapeutic riding program is specifically design for people with special needs to provide benefits including increased independence, improved self-esteem and confidence, as well as positive social interactions. This program is supported by SEG’s two PATH certified instructors, a licensed Occupational Therapist and a licensed Physical Therapist to assist those with needs.
One of those PATH instructors is Stacey Edwards, SEG’s Founder, Lead Instructor and Program Director. In the fall of 2007, after much experience in the field of therapeutic riding, Stacey founded SEG. By use of her extensive knowledge, she felt it was possible to reach even more children and adults with special needs in the North Georgia counties. Through her network, Stacey has been able to build and grow SEG to what it is today.
In addition to therapeutic riding, SEG also offers unique programs like Mini Horse Outreach. The program brings the magic of horses to children and adults who, due to illness or disability, can not come to the farm. Using specially trained and housebroken miniature horses, SEG travels into the community on “mini” visits to schools, hospitals, rehabs, nursing homes, and special events for both the special needs and community at large.
The work at SEG continues to grow and expand beyond the organization’s wildest dreams. Through these great programs, and with the help of the horses, individuals are allowed to process thoughts, beliefs, behaviors and patterns that often act as a metaphor to real life. That is the true reward in the work done at SEG.
Horses Bring Healing at Wildwood Hills
Breaking cycles, building leaders and transforming communities – that’s the ambitious goal of Wildwood Hills Ranch of Iowa. The sprawling 400-acre facility, located in the heart of Iowa’s idyllic Madison County, provides a place of hope and healing for at-risk children and veterans alike – often on the backs of horses.
Founded in 2011, The Ranch initially set out to provide a safe reprieve for vulnerable children through its Next Steps program. Later, the non-profit expanded its mission to address the needs of veterans. In both cases, equine therapy plays a key role, enabling participants to form positive relationships with their horses, while learning critical life skills like accountability, responsibility, self-confidence, problem solving and self control.
Matt Moeckl, who serves as the group’s executive director, recalls one veteran, struggling to escape years of drug and alcohol abuse, who found healing through Wildwood’s “Saddle After Service” program. As the man worked with his horse, he found a safe space to explore his problematic behaviors, choices and relationship patterns, and learned to replace them with healthy alternatives. Today, Matt reports the veteran has achieved 50 months of sobriety, graduated from college and re-established a relationship with his family.
The Ranch’s work with Iowa’s vulnerable youth has been equally life-changing. “What makes us unique,” Matt notes, “is that we make a 10-year commitment to our kids.” Once a child attends a Next Steps camp, they are guaranteed a scholarship to return until they turn 18.
Some, like Wildwood’s Events Director DeLayne Carrington, just keep coming back. She first set foot on the Ranch as an 8-year-old “Rancher,” participating in programming for elementary-aged at-risk children. Now a college graduate, she’s back coordinating group visits and fundraising events. “It really did change my life, developing my leadership skills and putting people in my life who mentored and cared about me,” DeLayne explains. “Now I’ve come full-circle.”
The horses and staff of Wildwood Hills have had a transformative effect on the lives of hundreds of at-risk youth and veterans, but the need remains great. “Growth in our business isn’t good,” Matt laments, noting the 25 percent uptick in childhood abuse cases in Iowa in 2018. “The upside is that we’re better equipped to meet their needs, but we would love for there to be a day when didn’t need to grow.”
The Animals of Mandy’s Farm
Mandy’s Farm was the first residential program in the United States designed with an emphasis on adult autism. From its inception in 2000, animals were a key component. At the Farm, individuals with developmental disabilities live and work alongside goats, chickens, alpacas, guinea hens, turkeys, cats, dogs and horses.
For clients who don’t communicate verbally, working with horses and other animals can be uniquely rewarding. “They may not be able to speak, but through touch, they can still learn to control this really large animal,” explains Jesse Calero, development director at the Albuquerque, New Mexico organization.
The farm includes a therapeutic riding program, where clients build muscle strength, balance and fine and gross motor skills, while at the same time developing socially and emotionally. “Before their first ride, we really try to ensure that our clients build a relationship with their animals, and that they understand and assist with their care,” Jessie explains. “Only then do we bring on the riding aspect.”
In the beginning, Mandy’s Farm only offered residential services, but today, it’s grown to include day programming and supported-employment services, too. In addition to animal husbandry programs, clients have opportunities to explore visual arts, music, organic gardening and more. But across all its programming, the Farm has a singular goal: to provide clients with an opportunity to set goals and achieve them. “We really design our programs to meet our clients where they are, celebrating their individual skills and strengths, and allowing them to grow at their pace,” Jessie explains. More than just a place to live or learn, Mandy’s Farm strives to create an environment where clients of all abilities can have meaningful, fulfilling lives.
“You don’t need to talk to be able to compete in a goat show, to groom a horse or to get involved with the regular care that animals require,” Jessie emphasizes. “But in doing those things, we’re providing individuals with opportunities to see what they’re capable of, and to also build relationships with these amazing animals.”
Horses and Humans Find Healing at Full Circle Rescue
Cris Pemberton has loved all things equine since she first learned to talk. She took her first riding lesson at age six, and grew up to own a farm, riding school and boarding facility. Still, she wanted to give back to the creatures that had done so much for her. In 2014, she launched Full Circle Rescue, a program to rescue abused horses. What she didn’t realize was that the organization she founded would evolve to rescue people, too.
“My intention was to just save horses,” she admits, “but along the way, I gained a bigger appreciation for what people are going through and how their stories mirror those of the abused horses that find their way into our program.”
Today, Full Circle Rescue provides rehabilitation services for both horses and humans, creating an opportunity for them to heal together. “When people help care for our animals, they develop the skills to heal themselves,” Cris explains, noting that participants learn to accept responsibility, gain confidence, improve communication skills, and develop patience and empathy towards others.
Full Circle’s equine-assisted therapy program works with a wide-range of groups, from developmentally disabled young adults to clients in addiction recovery programs. For many, their time at Full Circle represents a break from the pressures of everyday life and a chance to relax and reconnect with the world around them.
“A big piece of Full Circle is to allow people to bond with the horses, to just realize how inclusive, kind, intelligent and compassionate they are,” Cris explains. In that way, she hopes people will find value in investing in horses’ well-being for the long haul. “Horses have done so much for us for so long,” she explains. “They deserve our care.” In return, she’s found that horses can touch, uplift and enrich individuals and communities.
As Cris puts it, “What we do here is create a circle of people and horses, all working to help each other find their purpose, feel better and be part of something bigger.”
Little Horses Make a Big Impact
They may be small, but Jasper, Winnie and Bailey are making a big impact on young and old alike. The trio of American miniature horses are the stars of Heartland Mini Hoofs, a Taylorsville, Illinois-based non-profit organization that brings smiles, laughter and love to nursing homes, hospitals, libraries, schools, senior communities, Alzheimer’s units and other special groups throughout central Illinois.
Better known as “the horse lady,” Andra Ebert is the visionary behind Heartland. A licensed social worker and registered nurse, she spent 30 years working with elderly patients at area hospitals. Upon her retirement, she launched Heartland to continue contributing to the community.
“I’ve seen them approach nursing home residents who are pretty non-responsive,” Andra says. “They’ll just lay their noses on the person’s arms and oftentimes, the residents will open their eyes, smile and reach out to pet the horses.”
Andra remembers one such interaction, an elderly woman with advanced Alzheimer’s, who no longer spoke to her family or staff. “She would take Bailey’s face in her hands, lean down and start talking to him,” Andra recalls. “We visited her every month, and for six months, she would talk to Bailey.”
In addition to their outreach to elderly populations, the miniature horses are regular visitors to central Illinois elementary and middle schools, as part of an anti-bullying program. The horses help capture children’s attention and reinforce the program’s key messages. “Horses take care of each other, which is why they live in herds,” Andra explains. Through the “Just Say Whoa® to Bullying” program, Andra encourages children to follow Jasper, Winnie and Bailey’s example, and look out for one another if they witness bullying.
Last year, Andra and her horses made 166 visits and traveled 12,000 miles, bringing smiles to hundreds of faces along the way. “The connection that they make is something magical,” she says. “They intuitively know when there are adults or children with special needs and they are the calmest, most gentle, accepting animals in the world.”
These Horses Open Gateways to New Beginnings
Fannie and Rimtianna aren’t your typical therapists, but at Gateway Horseworks, the duo is part of a unique herd of horses that provide critical stepping stones toward healing for trauma survivors, including women escaping human trafficking, justice-involved youth and inmates preparing to re-enter society.
Like the clients they serve, some of Gateway’s horses once faced uncertain futures. Fannie and Rimtianna were adopted from the University of Pennsylvania’s large animal hospital. They could no longer be ridden, but at Gateway, they’re starting the second chapter of their lives – just like many of the program’s human participants.
All of Gateway’s programs follow the EAGALA (Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association) model of equine-assisted psychotherapy, which pairs a licensed mental health practitioner and an equine specialist alongside clients and a group of horses. “There’s no riding and we don’t teach horsemanship,” explains Kristen de Marco, executive director and co-founder of the non-profit group. “Our clients and horses meet on the same footing.”
As part of the therapy program, participants are given specific exercises to accomplish with their horses, designed to develop skills like non-verbal communication, problem solving and creative thinking. The horses, nonjudgmental by nature, provide an emotionally safe place where clients can build those critical life skills and work through their mental health issues.
Sometimes, the simplest actions lead to the biggest breakthroughs. One client, a survivor of human trafficking, was frightened of the horses, afraid to even reach out her hand from the other side of the fence. The horses, though surrounded by a pasture of lush grass, just stood by the gate. After a couple of sessions, the woman finally entered the pen. “She was terrified,” Kristen recalls, “but the horses just moved toward her and stayed with her throughout that session. That’s what our horses do, they accept people that are struggling and help them find the courage to face their biggest fears.”
The Horses of Second Chance Thoroughbreds
Taking a thoroughbred all the way from its racing career at the Finger Lakes Race Track, to a forever home. That’s the goal of Second Chance Thoroughbreds in Spencer, NY.
Started by a group of horse-loving friends who saw the need of these majestic athletes, Second Chance Thoroughbreds offers a change of pace, and a change in outlook, for the horses at the end of their racing career. By providing a soft landing at their retirement, the team is able to rehabilitate any injured horses, retrain the horses for a riding career suitable to their individual needs and abilities, and then work to ensure they each have a successful adoption. Each adoptive home is carefully vetted and matched to ensure a lifelong partnership – but if it doesn’t work out, Second Chance will take them back again.
Each year, some 20 to 25 horses will pass through the facilities in Spencer, but they do more than just recoup and find their new forever home. Second Chance Thoroughbreds offers riding and horsemanship programs in the summertime, as well as volunteer opportunities throughout the year. This connection to the local community is important in moving towards their goal of spreading the word about just how versatile, willing, and sensitive these Off-the-Track-Thoroughbred (OTTB) horses are.
One of their success stories, a retired racehorse named Cannot Stop, is reaching beyond the local community, with the help of his forever owner. He first survived the 2017 hurricane in Puerto Rico, then was shipped to Florida, and retired to Second Chance Thoroughbreds, where he was matched up with his forever owner. They are now participating in the Thoroughbred Makeover Retired Racehorse Project, and will compete in the event at the Lexington Horse Park in Kentucky in October of 2018.
Regardless of how Cannot Stop performs in Kentucky, the volunteers that staff Second Chance Thoroughbreds know that he, along with all the other horses that have come through their barns, are true winners. Their heart, athleticism, and desire to please are what drive the motto of the organization: Ride an OTTB Today!
Annie and Her Team of Therapeutic Companions
Bringing therapeutic animals to those in need is the goal of Annie’s Therapeutic Companions. The challenge comes in doing that in rural Texas. But as Founder and President, Lyndi Hanna explains, it’s all worth it to provide a service that is often exclusive to larger and more urban demographics.
Annie’s Therapeutic Companions was created and founded based on their namesake, Annie the Australian Shepherd. Lyndi’s passion for training dogs was the root of the concept, but she knew it would take the right dog to make it work. When Lyndi came across Annie, she knew she could finally make this dream a reality. Annie was trained and became certified as a registered Pet Partners therapy animal. Lyndi and Annie began visits to many hospitals, schools, and other care facilities.
As the need for more animal-assisted therapy grew in their rural Texas community, Lyndi decided to form a team of other registered therapy animals. Currently, Annie’s provides services that include therapy dogs and miniature horses, with hopes of expanding their therapy species-base even further.
Lyndi’s passion for her work is far and wide, and with certainty she says it is her ‘calling’. She and Annie have served as spiritual mentors for those in the hospital, companions to doctors who have experienced difficult patient situations, and provided encouraging distraction to children in the ER. They’ve also been an outlet for a special needs child in a school, and often are simply a kind presence to family members during trying times. As Lyndi stated, “It’s been really neat to see how such a simple thing has helped so many people.”
Continued reach is the goal of Annie’s Therapeutic Companions. Currently, the organization sees an average of 2,500 people per month with hopes of expanding their network. A continual balance of donations, fundraising, and grants like Feed It Forward are needed to keep this service flourishing. “I always get something new out of it,” Lyndi says, “We’re always learning something new and seeing what we can do for others, so it’s a big impact.”
The Horses at We Can Ride
We Can Ride in Maple Plain, MN, helps people who need physical therapy by connecting them with horses. The people who go through the program at We Can Ride get more out of it than just time spent with horses. The movement of the horse helps engage core muscles on people who may not be able to exercise those muscles easily on their own. The guests see huge physical benefits from the therapy, even though they may not be bearing a lot of weight themselves.
The Horses at Camp Cowboy
Camp Cowboy in Kempner, TX, connects its students, veterans and people with emotional trauma, with horses. Working with the horses in Camp Cowboy’s 90-day program gives the students something to help them work through the stress they have in their lives. The program gives them a chance to keep moving and keep doing something productive, taking their minds off of anything else. And they often learn how to handle themselves from learning how to handle the horses.
Dianne and Gus
Dianne is sixty-five, and a grandmother. But a diagnosis of Gillian-Barre syndrome has made her life harder. She suffers from balance and sensory problems, causing her to frequently fall or nearly fall. She needed physical therapy, but until she found Gus and the program at We Can Ride, she wasn’t motivated to do it.
Kyle and Hercules
Kyle is a student instructor at Camp Cowboy in Kempner, Tx. The program at Camp Cowboy helps people who need to overcome emotional trauma by connecting them with horses. When Kyle started the program at Camp Cowboy, he was readjusting to civilian life after service as a combat marine. He was also coping with a major loss. Working with Hercules changed his life. He opened up to Hercules, and he opened up to the people close to him.
Lauren and Griffin
Lauren is a twenty-six-year-old attorney who works in Minneapolis, MN. She was diagnosed with arthrogryposis multiplex congenital, a disorder which affects the mobility in her joints. Arthrogryposis holds her back physically in some aspects of life, but she learned at a young age that it doesn’t affect her when she’s in the saddle.
“It affects me to some extent, but it doesn’t limit my ability to still ride a horse.”
Around 2015, Lauren had hip surgery which further limited her mobility. Almost immediately after the surgery she told herself that she didn’t want the loss of mobility to keep her from doing the things she loves, things like horseback riding. She started looking for somewhere near Minneapolis that offered therapeutic horseback riding programs. That’s when she found We Can Ride in Maple Plain, MN. And that’s where she met her therapy horse, Griffin.
“I’ve ridden a lot of horses in my life, but Griffin has been so interesting to work with. From the moment that I started working with him, he started picking up on how my body works a little differently.”
Lauren says that Griffin is able to understand her body language, and he was able to do it almost immediately. Because he can so intuitively pick up on her body’s signals, she’s felt more like the two of them aren’t in therapy. To Lauren, she’s just riding her favorite horse.
“I wanted to be a horseback rider, not someone who has a disability and uses a horse as a form of therapy.”
Griffin makes Lauren feel more confident, not just in the saddle, but out in the world as well. When she’s riding him, she feels like she has as much mobility and as much freedom as anyone else. And we’re happy to be a part of that freedom she’s found.
Jeff and Sarge
Jeff started his service to our country as a member of the National Guard. After two and a half years of service, Jeff decided he wanted to do something more. That’s when he joined the Army. He served as a medic over two tours in Afghanistan before being discharged for a back injury.
“As a medic in the Army it’s kind of hard to hold people and all the gear if you’re hurt.”
His back injury wasn’t the only pain he returned home with. Life as a civilian was different to say the least. He wanted to stay away from people. And that made him realize he needed to find an outlet. That’s when Jeff found out about Camp Cowboy. He didn’t know anything about horses going in, but now he gets so much out of them.
“I don’t like civilians and Sarge calms me down, so I can deal with people outside of my family.”
Jeff is now on his third time through the Camp Cowboy program, and he’s working with his third horse, Sarge. He isn’t the easiest horse to work with. Sarge has impaired eyesight. That means Sarge has a little less confidence in his maneuvering. It also means that Jeff has to rely more on his voice and physical cues to help direct Sarge. Jeff thinks that he and Sarge both get a lot of the same out of their time together.
“He gets the same thing I do. A sense of normalcy.”
Jeff has found a place where he can be relaxed, and where the annoyances of civilian life don’t get to him. That’s what makes programs like Camp Cowboy so important to support. And that’s why we support them.
Charles and Hagen
Charles was in the Army for twelve years. The first few years saw him visiting Korea, then Germany, then he was sent to Iraq. He left the Army for a while but said he missed the sense of camaraderie which goes with it, so he signed back up. But when he returned to civilian life again, the sense of camaraderie was still missing. He said that he felt a detachment from society, and from other people, even his son. That’s when he began the program at Camp Cowboy and met Hagen, a horse who had sustained an injury to the left side of his face. Charles and Hagen both had scars, and they found camaraderie in each other.
“We have a connection…We both have pain…and you have to find a way to work through it.”
Hagen has taught him a lot about how to approach life as a civilian. Now Charles is able to slow down. Because of his work with Hagen, Charles can now approach things without having to think about them in the Army mindset which comes naturally to him.
“Instead of trying to beat everything into submission, this program helps you deal with life, with animals, in a more respectful and tolerant way.”
Not only has it helped him think more calmly outside of Camp Cowboy, but he said it’s also made him a better father. When he brings his son to Camp Cowboy, he feels like he’s teaching him valuable life skills which his son won’t find in most other places. Charles thinks that something as simple as cleaning stalls for extra money helps his son connect more with the physical world around him. And being around Hagen has taught Charles more about how to be a father.
“Learning more about myself and how to discipline Hagen has been beneficial in raising my son. It’s taught me — kind of like sandpaper — which rough areas that I need to get rid of.”
Now Charles brings his son out to Camp Cowboy on a regular basis, and he’s learned a little bit more about how he can communicate with him. The experiences with Camp Cowboy have brought more connection into his life. We’re happy to be part of that connection.
Kiara and Clown
Clown is a twenty-three-year-old paint thoroughbred who works as a therapy horse with We Can Ride in Maple Plain, Minnesota. He connects with people with disabilities, like eleven-year-old Kiara, who has Mitochondrial Cytopathy Disorder, which quickly drains her energy. A lot of people didn’t understand why Kiara was having a hard time.
“Nobody really understands that I am disabled until they see it. Like a lot of people will say I am fine and that I’m okay.”
Over the course of her therapy with Clown at We Can Ride, Kiara has slowly been able to increase her endurance while spending time with an animal she loves. Her core strength has increased, and her independence has grown. That’s something her doctors have noted, as well as the staff at We Can Ride.
“She has become more independent…[she has] more strength and her doctors have noticed…She is stronger. We can see it. We can see her growth and she is so very excited.”
-Simone, occupational therapist at We Can Ride
Not only has Kiara been able to grow from her work with Clown, but her mom is extremely thankful for the opportunities that Clown is bringing into her daughter’s life. Kiara is finally able to do normal little girl things, like go out and play. Clown has given that back to her, and Kiara’s mom doesn’t have to feel like those normal experiences are out of reach for Kiara.
“It’s really hard as a parent to sit there with physicians and have them say that you need to adjust, this may be normal for you, your normal may be twenty minutes to an hour [of activity]. It’s hard to sit down and have that conversation… [Clown has] given her a quality of life that we were kind of told wasn’t going to be there anymore.”
Kiara has normalcy in her life now. She’s able to be active, and for more than just twenty minutes a day. That’s because of Clown. That’s why the work that We Can Ride is doing is so important. Kiara is growing while interacting with an animal who she loves. Feed It Forward is proud to help We Can Ride and the other organizations like them.
Christine and Jade
She used to bite. She used to kick. Jade was one of the more difficult horses at Camp Cowboy, a non-profit in Texas that connects horses with people who have emotional trauma. Their work helps with things like anger, anxiety, even PTSD. Jade had a lot of behavioral problems, which made it hard for students at Camp Cowboy to work with her. But Tony Cole, the director of Camp Cowboy, had a feeling she might be a good fit with Christine.
“There were some real, deep seeded issues in the beginning. Since then Christine started working with Jade. That horse stomped her, and kicked her in the first two weeks.”
-Tony Cole, Director at Camp Cowboy
But, Christine wanted to keep working with Jade. She knew why they were put together. Christine, who was on a bad path in life, even saw a little bit of herself in Jade.
“I come from a very troubled past, and I’ve been in trouble, and I’ve hurt people, and I’ve done wrong things for so long. I was once like Jade. Very mean, pushy, not wanting to do things. And she was very mean. Very, very mean. She stomped on me, she’s kicked me, she has bitten me. I was very afraid of her. There have been times I thought I lost a toe, she stepped on me so hard.”
Despite the difficulty, Christine kept coming back week after week. It was a slow process. It took Christine forty-five days of the ninety-day Camp Cowboy program just to get Jade to listen while in the pen. But eventually Jade started to listen.
“You started seeing both of them getting a little softer and a little softer…The horse was interacting with other horses, the horse was calmer in the stall, it ate better…[Christine] started laughing and interacting.”
-Tony Cole, Director at Camp Cowboy
After the weeks of hard work, things started to turn around. Christine started to get Jade to open up, while opening up herself. Jade was becoming more peaceful, and Christine is proud to be the one who made that turn with Jade.
“I was able to put my kids on her…because she was so calm and docile. I did that. That is what I did.”
For Christine, Jade has helped her work through anxiety, and trauma. For Jade, Christine has served the same role. They’re both happier now. They’re both more trusting of people. And they’re both working one ride at a time to continue getting better. That bond is the reason Feed It Forward is happy to support organizations like Camp Cowboy.