Therapeutic Horses of Saratoga
In the heart of Saratoga Springs, New York, there’s a special place where horses and humans come together, creating a holistic and restorative environment. The brainchild of Dr. Erin Christopher-Sisk, Therapeutic Horses of Saratoga (THS) rescues retired racehorses and gives them a second career.
Dr. Christopher-Sisk had always incorporated dogs and cats into her therapy practice. After becoming a racehorse owner and learning that these majestic animals had few options once their racing days were over, she envisioned a new path forward – for the horses and her approach to therapy. Soon, she purchased a farm and began to offer a unique healing modality, using horses as the centerpiece.
“Equine therapy takes traditional talk therapy to an outdoor, therapeutic environment, unrestricted by office walls,” explains Megan Koloskie, development manager at THS. She says the approach can be used to help a variety of mental health issues, from anxiety and depression to autism and ADHD, and has shown particular promise with veterans and service members struggling with post-traumatic stress syndrome.
In 2022, THS offered more than 400 equine therapy sessions, including its first eight-week program geared specifically to the military community. Koloskie says the veterans who participated in this inaugural effort offered plenty of positive feedback. Among the comments, participants said it helped them “look inward and reflect on themselves,” was “calming and surprisingly effective,” and noted that friends and family noticed “a drastic improvement in my self-awareness and attention.”
Bolstered by the initial program’s success, THS launched the Freedom Rein Project, supported by an adaptive sports grant from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. This funding enables THS to provide free equine therapy to service members and veterans.
“This type of care isn’t covered by insurance, and cost has been a barrier in the past,” Koloskie says. “Many service members struggle with PTSD, a lack of connection in civilian life, communication issues and more.” She says the unique brand of equine-assisted therapy offered at THS was developed to help address these challenges.
“I’m grateful to our founders, who poured their hearts and souls into establishing this farm and turning it into a true sanctuary for humans and horses,” Koloskie adds. “I feel privileged to be part of THS and working here makes me feel like I am contributing in some small way to making a difference in the world.”
Piketon High School FFA
Agriculture education teacher Kristen Campbell loves teaching high schoolers about agriculture and veterinary science. Her passion is clearly infectious – which explains why one in five Piketon High School students participated in Agriculture classes last year.
Under Campbell’s watchful eye, students learn to care for all kinds of animals, including chickens, rabbits, goats, sheep, horses, miniature pigs, dogs, cats and yes – even a bearded dragon. “The more students learn about these animals, the better care they provide and the deeper they understand how important animals are to their livelihood,” she says.
While the class curriculum aims to give students a solid grounding in animal husbandry, students also benefit from the connections formed with the classroom animals. “The animals don’t judge,” Campbell explains, “they just provide love and support.”
For troubled teens, Campbell’ Agriculture classes can become a refuge against life’s trials, disappointments and tragedies. She recalls how one young student, struggling after the death of sibling, found solace in the classroom rabbit. Then there’s the high schooler who came from a verbally abusive home.
“She absolutely fell in love with one of our little chicks,” Campbell recalls. “Every time she held it, her face lit up with a big smile like they were meant to be together.” Seeing a connection that shouldn’t be broken, Kristen arranged for the student to care for the chick at her grandparents’ home.
Piketon’s Agriculture students already benefit greatly from their animal education coursework, but their intrepid teacher has her sights set on creating a more comprehensive learning environment. Currently, larger animals are brought in for a day, but Kristen aims to give her teens more in-depth interactions and responsibilities. She’s currently raising funds to install a small livestock barn at the high school, enabling student to gain more hands-on experience with daily animal care.
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.”
Broome County 4-H
Fifteen-year-old Reanna is a big proponent of 4-H, America’s largest youth development organization. She credits the program for developing her love of animals, while also honing her public speaking and leadership skills.
“The education you gain in this program can’t be learned anywhere else,” she insists. “4-H changed my life for the better and I truly believe I would not be the person I am today without 4-H and agriculture.”
Brian Aukema, associate director of agriculture for Broome County’s Cooperative Extension service, concurs with Reanna’s enthusiasm. That’s why he’s working to start a Livestock Rodeo, an event that will teach local youth about animal care, nutrition, showmanship, and grooming.
“Less than 2% of our population are directly involved in livestock production and farming, but one in ten jobs deal with agriculture,” he explains. “That’s why it is very important for organizations like 4-H to thrive. It provides youth the opportunity to develop that passion to feed the world.”
Brian hopes the Livestock Rodeo will inspire more youth to join the program. “4-H has a special meaning for everyone, but for all of us, it’s a place to explore our interests and build our own identity,” he maintains. “It’s a supportive community to help youth take on new challenges and reach their full potential. Working together, youth and adults find they can create a powerful change in the world around them, help local communities thrive, and develop their own spark.”
For Reanna, that spark started as a five-year-old showing a few bunnies and grew into a desire to study agriculture in college. “I had no idea that joining 4-H would have the impact on my life that it does and would help me grow in so many ways,” she says. “Now, there is nothing I love more than advocating for the livestock industry. 4-H is truly life-changing.”
Mount Pleasant FFA
Katie Cauthen has always had a deep bond with animal agriculture, one that stretches back to her days as an FFA member at Mt. Pleasant High School (MPHS) in North Carolina. Today, she shares that zeal with the next generation of MPHS students, as one of the school’s agriculture teachers.
“I have a passion for animal agriculture, and seeing that passion ignite in my students is one of the greatest feelings one can have,” she says.
The school-owned livestock barn and pasture facilities aid her on that quest. They enable students to gain hands-on experience with all aspects of animal nutrition and care. Moreover, the recently added FFA livestock show team exclusively exhibiting animals bred and raised on the school campus. This provides one more element of learning – and fun – to the MPHS ag program.
“Our animal science program is built on hard work, determination, a passion for animals, and empathy towards all living things,” she emphasizes. Along the way, students build communication and leadership skills, all while developing bonds with their show team animals.
“There is no denying the incredible connection that forms between people and animals,” Katie adds. “Working with animals can drive an individual to act with determination, live every day with a more positive outlook, and walk through life with empathy towards others.”
Mount Pleasant FFA
The Mount Pleasant FFA program has a rich history, providing students with hands-on experiences caring for livestock and learning critical farm management practices. Along with way, students build leadership and communications skills, and become advocates for animal agriculture.
Former student Elisabeth Swinson says the program helped her uncover her true passion for animals. “I always knew I wanted to be a veterinarian, but I’d never actually been around animals,” she explains. Now a freshman at North Carolina State University, Elisabeth says her time with MP FFA, caring for the school’s goats, sheep and cattle, solidified her career choice.
Her sentiments are echoed by other students enrolled in the program. Recent graduate Brianna Colosi credits the program with sharpening her study habits, strengthening her team-building skills, and providing countless leadership opportunities.
Now, thanks to Nutrena’s Feed it Forward grant, the students at Mount Pleasant are updating pasture fencing, enabling them to implement a rotational pasture grazing system that will serve as model for the community. The group plans to partner with local county extension agents to hold monthly Small Ruminant Producers meetings, where students can demonstrate pasture rotation plans, forage management, and sheep and goat handling.
“Not every school program is lucky enough to have the opportunity to walk outside their classroom and see real-world examples of what they’re learning,” says Shelby Mabe, the current president of the FFA chapter. “At Mount Pleasant, the animal science program and the FFA chapter work together to help students grow and find their passions.”
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.
Clifton Career FFA
Classes at Clifton Career Development School are little different than most inner-city high schools. For one thing, the school has its own small herd of sheep, allowing students to learn how to feed, care for and even show the wooly creatures.
A magnet school in the heart of Austin, Texas, Clifton Career offers career and technical education classes for students with special needs. Russell Duncum runs the school’s agricultural science program. While the goal of these hands-on classes is to prepare students for meaningful employment when they graduate, Russell says students walk away with much more.
“One of the things that the animal program has brought out in our kids is a sense of caring,” he explains, noting that the skill easily transfers to many workplace and life situations. “For many, it’s the first time they’ve ever had a chance to care for another living thing.”
Russell’s students don’t come from traditional agricultural backgrounds and most know little, if anything, about raising and exhibiting livestock. Through their coursework, they learn ethical livestock handling, animal nutrition and other production-related skills. Then there’s all the intangibles, like teamwork, work ethic, commitment and discipline.
“We didn’t anticipate how the kids would ‘soften’ when they bond with our animals,” Russell notes. He points to one young student – a “hard kid” with plenty of emotional baggage, who was tasked with raising a lamb. The lamb became ill, and the young man spent hours, coaxing him to eat and showering him with love. “When the lamb finally started to respond to treatment, the smiles and jubilation on that young man were priceless,” Russell recalls, admitting the experience still warms his heart.
In the showring, Clifton Career students compete head-to-head with other area youth, without any special accommodations. “The success they achieve there reflects their hard work and demonstrates our kids can accomplish anything,” Russell adds – a simple idea that just might be the biggest life lesson of all.