Whispering Acres Tails and Treasures
Nyema has autism spectrum disorder. She has difficulty with social interactions, focusing and staying on task. But when she’s with Alice – her favorite therapy horse – those challenges seem a little less daunting.
“She’s learned to get her horse, groom her, saddle and bridle her, ride her and then do everything in reverse,” says Nyema’s mom. “Some days are better than others, but she always gets the job done, because she knows that is what is required to ride.”
For Jill Kuzelka, founder of Whispering Acres, stories like Nyema’s are exactly why she started the Nebraska-based non-profit. “We’re a safe place for people to work on challenges, often in a way that doesn’t seem like work,” she explains.
The non-profit offers something for everyone, from its much-loved petting zoo – complete with pygmy goats, chickens, peacocks and donkeys – to the High Hopes Equine Assisted Learning Center, which empowers children and adults with physical, mental, emotional and social challenges to create more active, healthy and fulfilling lives.
“Helping people live their best lives is the ultimate goal for me,” Kuzelka says. The animals at Whispering Acres seem to share her commitment. Take Duke, a 12-year-old Paint. Jill recalls an especially memorable first visit for one young, non-verbal client, who didn’t want to get out of the car. “Duke stuck his head in the car window, and they’ve had a great relationship ever since,” she says. “Now even on his bad days, he still wants to pet Duke.”
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.
Mission Animal Hospital
When Fuzz arrived at Mission Animal Hospital, the situation was grim. The orange and white feline had been caught in the crossfire of neighborhood gun violence, and the cost for treating his wound seemed out of reach for his family. Thankfully, a veterinarian referred his owner to Mission, where a skilled team soon determined his injured leg would require amputation. Without Mission’s subsidized veterinary care, Fuzz’s family would have been forced to make difficult choices. Instead, he was soon home, adapting to his new life.
“Poverty impacts nearly every aspect of a person’s life, but the impact it has on pet owners and their animal companions is among the most devastating,” says Christine Durand, development director at Mission. “It’s painful to lose a pet due to old age or other natural causes, but it’s even more traumatic when a pet must be surrendered or euthanized due to financial limitations.”
Founded in 2015, Mission Animal Hospital aims to offer low-income families another option. The Minnesota-based non-profit provides a range of services, from wellness pet check-ups to urgent care surgery. Last year alone, Mission provided more than $1.5 million in subsidized care to 6,000 families. And it’s not just about pets.
“We care for their people, too,” Christine emphasizes. “We understand the human-pet bond runs deep.” That’s why Mission’s staff includes a social worker, to assist clients with difficult medical decisions, grief counseling and even housing or food insecurity. It’s a novel approach to pet care – but one Christine says pays dividends every day.
To quantify that value, Mission partnered with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and Ecotone Analytics. Their research found that for every dollar invested in Mission, there was a $4.64 social return, with benefits that included improved quality of life from pet companionship, lower veterinary care costs and reduced healthcare expenses for pet owners. “Those result speak to the larger social benefits of pet ownership, and the need to provide pet owners with affordable options for veterinary care,” Christine emphasizes.
Fuzz and his family certainly agree!
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.
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.”
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.
Gateway to the Great Outdoors
A lifelong outdoorsman, Nadav Sprague wanted to share his love for nature, animals, and the great outdoors with students from low-income families. That desire prompted him to launch Gateway to the Great Outdoors (GGO) while still a student at Washington University.
Five years later, the program he built partners with public schools in Chicago, Illinois, and St. Louis, Missouri, to provide animal, outdoor, and STEAM (science, technology, engineering, the arts, and mathematics) education to underserved students. GGO’s curriculum combines hands-on, inquiry-based classroom instruction and nature-based outings and overnight trips, with year-round mentorship from university students.
Before participating in GGO, 78% of students indicated that they had not been to a park in a year or more. Nadav’s non-profit works to give those children the opportunity to experience the wonders of nature, including up-close encounters with wildlife.
Through field trips and overnight camping outings, students gain a new appreciation for animals and the environment. “We’re educating and inspiring the next generation of animal stewards and advocates,” Nadav says, “… and helping students make connections between themselves, the environment, and wildlife.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
Motivated by stories of pet owners faced with the choice of feeding their pet or themselves, Yvette Teipel jumped into action. In December 2019, the non-profit she helped co-found, Protecting Paws, launched a Community Pet Food Bank to help those struggling to care for their four-legged friends.
The timing proved fortuitous, as the COVID-19 pandemic soon pushed even more pet owners into financial uncertainty. Volunteer Jacqueline Colpean sees those struggles firsthand, as she delivers pet food to families in need. “Our clients are doing whatever it takes to feed their beloved pets,” she explains. “Knowing that their animals will continue to be fed is huge relief, and one less worry for them.”
For Yvette, the community pet food bank was a natural extension of Protecting Paws’ initial program, which focused on providing animal care and welfare presentations at local schools and libraries. It also fit clearly with the group’s mission: to help end animal abuse and neglect.
“The pets we help are stars in their family’s hearts,” Yvette adds. “I’m thrilled we’re able to help those that are voiceless and give peace of mind to their families.”
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.”
ProMedica Hope and Recovery Pets
Hope and Recovery Pets has been doing incredible work for years in providing assistance to those with mental illness through pairing them with animals to love. HARP itself is a collaboration between the Toledo Humane Society and ProMedica, aimed at relieving the costs of pet care and adoption for those with mental illnesses that might be benefited by animal companionship.
Today the organization helps thousands of people and pets, by pairing them and covering all the costs of adoption, veterinary care, food, grooming, and other pet expenses. This has helped the cause blossom into not only a cause for good that provides joy and healing, but also into an invaluable source of medical data. After years of demonstrating positive outcomes from increased human-animal interaction, the world of mental health medicine has gained invaluable information about the social and psychological benefits of animal companionship.
What are the benefits of animal interaction? The major improvements come in the form of reducing anxiety, alleviating depression, providing self-care motivation, and other psychologically therapeutic outcomes. In fact, no current HARP patients have experienced a psychiatric hospitalization after adoption. As incredible as that is, it’s not the only breakthrough the program provides. There’s strong evidence that pet adoption also brings with it a long list of social benefits that aren’t always immediately apparent. Patients are less lonely, and have an easier time relating to others and making new friends, after adopting a pet.
HARP is changing both human and animal lives for the better. But the most inspiring thing of all might be what their results mean for the future. The better we understand the relationship between human-animal relationships and mental illness, the closer we’ll be to a world where mental illness means less stigma, and less suffering, than today.
Controlled Chaos Ranch & Rescue
Noelle Waller, founder of Controlled Chaos Ranch & Rescue, admits she has a soft spot for animals – especially rabbits. After years of fostering a myriad of animals for other rescue organizations, she launched her own non-profit, focused on rehabilitating farm animals, exotic birds and rabbits (of course).
However, the Oklahoma-based operation serves more than animals in-need. A former teacher, Noelle partnered with the local public library to initiate what might the country’s only program pairing struggling young readers with cuddly rabbits. Dubbed “Read to Somebunny,” anecdotal evidence from local teachers suggests the program is delivering tangible results.
“Letting children benefit from the non-judgmental presence of a rescued animal helps them gain confidence and raises their self-esteem, while also allowing them to improve their reading skills,” Noelle says. In many cases, students who participate in the program require noticeably less literacy support at school.
Harry, a fuzzy little Jersey Wooly rabbit, is a favorite. “He just melts across the laps of all the children who choose to read to him,” Noelle explains. But it wasn’t always that way. When Harry arrived at Controlled Chaos Ranch, his fur was matted to his skin, a clear sign of neglect and abuse.
“We got him trimmed down, removed all the mats and realized he was the most appreciative bunny,” Noelle recalls. Soon enough, Harry was basking in the love and attention from the library program’s young readers, just one more success story for Controlled Chaos Ranch.
Home for Life
Diego was just two years old when he arrived at Home for Life, but he already had a reputation as unmanageable. TC, saddled with several infected teeth that made it nearly impossible for him to eat, was painfully thin. Dodi had been removed from three rescues and two homes in just 18 months. Euthanasia was the next stop for all three, until Home for Life stepped in.
“In the world of animal welfare, shelters offer two doors: adoption and euthanasia,” explains Lisa LaVerdiere, founder of the Wisconsin-based non-profit. “We’re the third door – a care-for-life sanctuary.”
As one of the country’s only such sanctuaries, Home for Life helps desperate animals whose needs exceed the capacity of traditional shelters and rescues. Some 200 cats and dogs live out their days at this unique facility, receiving the medical attention and the safe, loving environment they need.
In return, many of the animals give back to the community through the group’s innovative Peace Creatures pet therapy program. “The adults and children we help can identify with our animals – they’ve both been through so much,” Lisa contends. Through the program, Home for Life provide solace and joy to the lives of 8,000 at-risk kids and adults every year.
“Dogs and cats who fall outside the parameters of ‘adoptable’ are overlooked or disregarded,” Lisa continues. “But we’re reminded every day that these special cats and dogs are not pariahs or outcasts. They still have much to give.”
Can Do Canines
The concept of “love at first sight” is a cliché often reserved for fairy tales, not real life. But for Brea, a young girl with cerebral palsy, and Gregg, a hard-working yellow Labrador, nothing could be truer. Brea’s father, Cedar, still recalls the first time they set eyes on Gregg.
“We went to meet a couple of dogs and Gregg immediately began responding to Brea’s communication device giving commands,” he recalls. “He was completely engaged with her and she with him.”
Credit Can Do Canines for bringing them together. The New Hope, Minn.-based nonprofit pairs people with disabilities, including hearing loss, mobility needs, diabetes, seizure disorders and autism, with specially trained dogs. To date, the organization has placed more than 700 fully trained assistance dogs into the community.
The impact can be profound. Though Brea and Gregg have only been together a few months, Brea’s family see a difference in the way their daughter interacts with the world. “As their relationship grows, we expect Gregg will play an even bigger role in helping her be more self-sufficient,” Cedar says. Already, the eager dog picks up things Brea drops, opens and closes doors, activates handicap buttons, puts clothes in the hamper and more. But equally important, Cedar says, is the social component.
“A dog helps remove the stigma around the person it’s helping,” he explains. “People are more willing to talk to you when you have a dog.”
Can Do Canines Founder Al Peters concurs, adding that the program’s effects are far-reaching. “Our dogs fetch amazing things. They provide the gifts of freedom, independence, safety, security and peace of mind to our clients and their families,” he emphasizes. “The dogs cause such a ripple effect because we see clients empowered to go out and pay it forward in the world on their own. The benefits truly are boundless.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
Central Missouri Humane Society
Every companion animal – regardless of its age, breed, health or temperament – will find safe haven at Central Missouri Humane Society (CMHS). That simple tenant has guided the non-profit since it first opened in 1943.
It also results in some staggering statistics. Last year alone, more than 3,200 animals benefited from the shelter’s open-door policy. Finding homes for all those pets can be challenging, but Michelle Casey, who serves as the organization’s associate director, wouldn’t have it any other way. “We believe all animals deserve to be treated equally,” she explains.
Fortunately, thanks to the shelter’s dedicated network of foster homes and its proactive adoption program, CMHS never euthanizes animals due to lack of space. In 2018, CMHS placed more than 2,600 animals in loving homes, making it the largest pet adoption center in mid-Missouri. Dedicated foster families took in nearly 1,400 more. As a result of those efforts, no animal has a ‘time limit’ at CMHS.
“Animals are truly a gift from the universe, sent to help us make sense of a world that can at times be cruel and unforgiving,” Michelle maintains. “Our pets accept us despite our flaws and shortcomings. There are a great many lessons we can all learn from animals, if only we take the time to listen.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
Emily Blevins joined the FFA and started taking agriculture classes at Seaman High School in Topeka, KS, as a freshman. She thought it would be fun, but never expected it to have such a big impact on her life. The introduction of the student-run chicken coop has only magnified that impact on her and other students.
Emily’s teacher, Megan VanGordon, wanted her students to get more first-hand experience with animals. That’s why she proposed the class build a chicken coop. The coop would be entirely student operated. VanGordon hoped it would be a way to make kids who haven’t necessarily grown up around these animals fall in love with agriculture. For Emily and many other students, it has done exactly that.
Emily says that she gets to care for the chickens on a daily basis. She and the other students are responsible for feeding them, tending to the coop, and they even have to vet the chickens if any fall ill. They’re getting exactly the type of hands-on experience that their teacher, Mrs. VanGordon, thought would be so beneficial.
Now that Emily is close to graduating, she’s made it clear that she wants to do something involving agriculture. Many of her classmates feel similarly. Emily says, “It kind of turned my whole world upside down — in a good way.”
Seaman High School FFA
The FFA program at Seaman High School provides a hands on experience that not every school can provide. They built a chicken coop on the school grounds. The idea came into being from the school’s FFA Instructor, Megan VanGordon. She’s passionate about agriculture and her students, and wants her students to understand how agriculture impacts their lives. She says, “It’s a huge passion and drive of mine for me to teach kids where their food comes from.” The chicken coop provides some of that first-hand knowledge.
Megan had another motive behind building the coop. She calls it a way of tricking her students into falling in love with agriculture. Her students are entirely responsible for it — they’re feeding and caring for the chickens. One of her students, Emily, even says they had to figure out how to make the watering system in the coop work themselves. Megan is proud to see the coop fuel a passion for agriculture among her students. It’s also helping them get more students involved in the school.
Before the coop’s construction, Megan reached out to the school’s special education teacher, Raquel Carlson. Megan had an idea to get the school’s special education program, the Viking Warriors, involved with the coop. She wants the coop to be a place where her FFA members can teach the Viking Warrior students, and it’s become just that. The Viking Warriors come out to the coop and learn how to feed and care for the birds, and the FFA members get a chance to interact with peers that they wouldn’t normally see in class. It’s become a learning experience for both groups of students, and a successful experience for both.
The chicken coop has been a huge success, and now more classes are reaching out to collaborate. Megan says, “We even have a creative writing class who wants to go out there one day and write a creative writing story about the chickens.” It’s been great to see how much of an impact the chickens have had on the school, and how supportive the school has been as a whole. Clearly a lot more classes will be held in the coop.
Crystal and The Chickens
Eggs are the obvious benefit of a chicken coop. There are also a lot of intangible things that Crystal, a blind student with Seaman High School’s Viking Warrior program, gets from the coop. It brings her a way to get to know her classmates. And it helps prepare her for a world after high school.
Seaman High School’s Viking Warrior program is made up of students, like Crystal, who need a specialized learning environment. Raquel Carlson, the special education teacher who heads up the Viking Warrior program, has a goal of making her students feel like they’re contributing to the community during high school and beyond. Unfortunately, the nature of their classes means that they don’t have as many opportunities to interact with other school students. Then Megan VanGordon, the school’s FFA Instructor, invited Raquel to get her class involved with the chicken coop that her FFA students were building.
Raquel loved the invitation. She saw it as an opportunity to get Crystal and the other Viking Warrior students more involved with their classmates. That idea was confirmed after the coop was completed and she got see her Viking Warrior students interact with their FFA peers and with the chickens. She says that Crystal and the other Viking Warriors were nervous at first, but they learned quickly from the FFA students. Crystal and the rest of Raquel’s class were opening up, and they were interacting with the birds and their fellow students. When asked about Crystal, one of the FFA members, Emily, says “Seeing how much she enjoyed it, I realized that it was all worth it.”
Learn more about the FFA coop at Seaman High School
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 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.”
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 Assistance Dogs Have “Can Do” Attitudes
For Alan Peters, Can Do Canines is the fulfillment of a long-time dream to create mutually beneficial partnerships between people and specially trained dogs. Since he founded the program in 1987, the New Hope, MN-based non-profit has placed more than 600 assistance dogs – free of charge – with persons with disabilities.
“The impact is almost always a better attitude about life,” Alan explains. “People who once felt isolated or marginalized feel more engaged in the world when they enter each day with an assistance dog by their side.”
Alan recalls the program’s first pairing, Annie and Marcy. “Marcy was deaf and lived alone,” he recalls. “She was terrified at the sounds she was missing. She didn’t know when someone was at her door, or when someone tried to call her.” The fledgling organization matched Marcy with a little terrier mix named Annie, who had been slated for euthanasia at a local animal shelter. Annie learned to alert to sounds like smoke alarms, door knocks, alarm clocks and telephones. “It completely changed Marcy’s life, giving her greater independence and peace of mind,” Alan explains.
While Can Do Canine got its start providing hearing-assistance dogs, today the organization also provides service dogs to aid those with limited mobility, seizure disorders, type 1 diabetes and children with autism. Can Do Canine dogs learn all kinds of jobs, from opening doors to sensing when a person’s blood sugar is low. However, in addition to those tangible tasks, the dogs provide a valuable social connection. “Often, people with disabilities feel isolated from others, but with a service dog, the dog becomes the focus, not the disability,” Alan notes.
Critical to the non-profit’s success is its team of more than 900 volunteers, who do everything from fundraising to puppy raising. Two of those dedicated volunteers, Patrick and DeeDee Heffernan, have been fostering and raising puppies for Can Do Canines since 1992. “It started as a compromise, my wife wanted a dog – I, of course, didn’t,” Patrick recalls. However, it wasn’t long before their involvement in the organization blossomed, as they saw what a difference the dogs made. “We’re helping people have a better life where they can be more independent, and at the same time providing a really high quality of life for the dog too.”
Alan admits that not every dog has the right combination of intelligence, attitude and personality to become a service dog, but those who do seem to thrive at the chance to play such critical roles in their owners’ lives. “Our dogs love what they do,” he explains, “and it makes a world of difference to those with disabilities.”
Helping ‘Diamonds’ Find Their Forever Home
Passionate doesn’t even begin to describe the feelings Diamond In The Ruff Rescue (DITR) founders Bev Espenscheid and Lisa Tichy have for their organization. “We do this on our breaks, in the evenings, on the weekends, in the middle of the night when we get the 911 calls,” explains Bev. They both joke by saying, “We often wish we didn’t have day jobs, so we could do this all the time.”
Founded from an overwhelming gap in the community for an animal rescue service, DITR’s foster-based program aims to help animals find their forever home. This passion project is just that, a passion of Bev and Lisa’s. They rely solely on volunteers, donations and fundraisers, as there is no paid staff or brick and mortar facility. Their network of volunteers aid in rescues and foster animals as they transition to a permanent home.
One of their foster volunteers, Austin Gillis, recalls his journey to DITR, “I was in the Air Force for seven years active duty, and was medically discharged. I started doing a lot of different things, but was kind of struggling to find my sense of purpose,” he explains. “One very cold day, my wife and I looked out our window and saw two German Shepherds running in our yard. We started calling around to see if there was a rescue, and that is when we found DITR.” He continues by saying, “They were able to post it to their website, and a short time after, the owners contacted us with much gratitude. After that experience, I contacted DITR and asked if I could get involved.”
Along with the rescue portion of the organization, another great service provided is pet solutions for the elderly in the community. DITR aids in the rehoming transition of pets owned by elderly who are moving into a care facility. The organization also maintains an excellent relationship with the Animal Rescue League, helping them problem-solve difficult animals or facilitate foster animals.
“At the end of the day, the animals are getting a fair chance at a good life,” explains Bev. “They can’t speak for themselves, so we have to speak for them.”
The Chickens at Zachariah’s Acres
Zachariah’s Acres in Oconomowoc, WI, connects children and young adults with special needs to nature. They have accessible vegetable gardens with wheelchair height planting boxes, an orchard with pavement for easy wheelchair access, even a treehouse with an American with Disabilities Act compliant ramp system. Their most popular attractions are the custom-built, accessible chicken coops. The coops, one of which was funded by Nutrena, are accessible to anyone. The chickens are cared for by the visitors of Zachariah’s Acres, and the guests get more out of it than just caring for chickens.
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.
Emily, Anna, and Elsa
Emily is a member of the Service Without Boundaries program at the YMCA in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. Once a week, she and the group from the local YMCA visit Zachariah’s Acres to help, and Emily always looks forward to seeing the chickens. She even has a couple of favorite birds.
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.
Maya, Holly, and the Chickens
Maya and her mother, Holly, were two of the first guests to visit Zachariah’s Acres. They had been regular visitors since the first event in 2015, and they were there when the chickens were added as a part of the facilities. When the birds were added, Maya was immediately in love with them. Holly, on the other hand, was a little less enthusiastic.
“I was hesitant. But seeing her—I would do anything for Maya—seeing her love and passion for these birds, you have to get over your own fear.”
Maya was all she had. So it’s only natural that Holly was a little protective of her, and chickens usually aren’t great to have around someone who has IV lines in. But as the two came out more and more, Holly saw how much her daughter loved being with the birds. She got more comfortable being around them, and with Maya being around them without her direct supervision.
“We have pictures of her in her wheelchair holding this huge chicken that took up her whole lap, and she’d show her doctor. And I’d cringe, because they’re not big fans of chickens with someone who has IV lines in. But it didn’t matter, and her doctors knew that.”
When Maya was at Zachariah’s Acres, and at the coops, she was able to experience a little bit of independence. She was able to go directly up to nesting boxes in her wheelchair and gather eggs herself. It gave her a sense of accomplishment and independence that she didn’t have in other spaces.
“She had to try to get it all in in three hours, because she had to try it all. It was a place where she wasn’t sick. She was just Maya. That’s all she wanted.”
Maya passed in the fall of 2017, and Holly has been dealing with that. She still goes to the places she went with Maya. She still goes to Zachariah’s Acres. She still visits the chicken coops. She still shares that with her daughter.
“It’s been really great for grieving to be able to come out here. Now I honestly will sit at the picnic tables because I love to listen to the chickens talk. Sometimes I record them so I can go home and listen to them. There’s something in hearing them.”
Maya had many different medical problems throughout her life, and she was confined to a wheelchair for most of that life. But despite those difficulties, she still made it a life worth living. And even though she had to leave Holly early, Maya still taught her mom so much. We’re proud to have helped Zachariah’s Acres give them the chickens to share with each other.
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.
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.
Andrew and the Flock
The flock at Zachariah’s Acres has helped thousands of guests with special needs build confidence and life skills. For the members of the YMCA Service Without Boundaries program in Oconomowoc, WI, seeing the flock of picking, pecking, egg-laying chickens is the highlight of their week. Especially for Andrew, a member of the YMCA program who lives with Down syndrome.
Andrew has been visiting the chickens at Zachariah’s Acres for a few years now. In that time he’s become an expert at egg gathering, and caring for the birds. For Andrew, like most people, caring for a flock of chickens is something he wouldn’t normally do. He gets to bond with animals and build his confidence with nature in a way that most young adults like him don’t ever get to experience.
“You can feel that he wants to be here. He wants to be with the chickens. He’s feeling that positive energy the chickens bring to us all. He’s doing something that he can’t do at home.”
-Lorrie, Volunteer with the YMCA
To Andrew and the many other guests who visit Zachariah’s Acres every day, it’s more than just “feeding birds.” He has a chance to get excited about a job well done, and to grow a little with every visit to the coop. That’s something the volunteers who work with Zachariah’s Acres or the YMCA have noticed as well.
“Andrew has learned to step out of his comfort zone. [He’s learned] to try something different, instead of just being passive, and sitting around, or letting other people do work for him. He’ll initiate that work…And that’s just come with time and comfort out here.”
-Emily, Head of Community Outreach at Zachariah’s Acres
Because of his time at Zachariah’s Acres, Andrew has built confidence, he’s developed valuable life skills, and he’s grown. That was given to him by a flock of chickens. That shows that any animal can have an amazing impact on a person’s life. That is why we’re so happy to support amazing places like Zachariah’s Acres.