Kristen Kinder established Restore Ranch based on her lived experience: It’s easier for a survivor of sexual trauma to trust a horse that a human.
“Restore Ranch was born out of my own healing,” she explains, recalling her abusive upbringing. “Two of the horses currently at our farm are the reason I’m still alive today. They, with the help of therapy, and by the grace of God, helped me heal and relearn how to live and thrive.” Now she channels the 20 years of trauma and abuse she endured to help others.
“People struggling with effects of abuse, mental illness or self-harm can be anxious about opening up about their struggles, but horses offer a neutral, nonjudgmental ear,” Kinder explains. “They are incredible animals that mirror emotions and actions of the people around them. Sometimes we don’t realize we are expressing a certain emotion, but how the horse responds can help us identify what we’re feeling.”
At Restore Ranch, clients and their chosen horse work through exercises that simulate real-life scenarios. Along the way, they learn to overcome obstacles in a healthy way, building skills and confidence. “I’ve watched clients go from timid, standoffish and quick to wanting to quit when an activity gets hard, to being excited to put the work into completing an activity,” Kinder says. “I’ve seen shy clients who keep to themselves go help a struggling group member, and I’ve listened as clients share what they learned during the session, realizing how they can use these insights in their healing process.”
Ultimately, Kinder says it’s about helping clients understand they are worthy of love and friendship – something that often starts with the horses. “They help bridge the gap while we chip away at a client’s layers of walls,” she says, until finally, “they realize they can overcome and heal and thrive.”
Ashlyn had a rough start to life. She suffered a stroke a few days prior to birth, then endured two brain surgeries and a long NICU stay. She’s been diagnosed with cortical visual impairment, cerebral palsy, developmental delay and epilepsy – yet despite it all, she has blossomed into a sassy four-year-old who is rarely content to sit still.
“Her weekly sessions at HorsePlay are her favorite part of the week,” her mom notes. “Not only does she get the movement she craves, but she’s also strengthened her core and developed more signs and sounds to communicate. HorsePlay combines her love of bouncing with the therapy she needs, making it more like play time than work.”
According to Katie Cammack Eller, a speech language pathologist with the center, that is the secret to HorsePlay’s success. Using hippotherapy, a treatment strategy that provides physical therapy, speech therapy and occupational therapy on horseback, as well as equine therapy, an approach that uses equine activities to promote physical, occupational and emotional growth, Cammack Eller and HorsePlay’s team of licensed professionals work together to transform their clients’ lives.
“Hippotherapy has several benefits, including balance and postural control, sensory input, and respiratory support for speech production,” she explains. Then there’s the emotional connection, which Cammack Eller says leads to improved confidence and social-emotional well-being.
When HorsePlay first opened, the center focused on children like Ashlyn with special needs, but soon after the staff identified another community in need – veterans. So, on Veteran’s Day 2021, HorsePlay launched its Rise Up for Veterans program, developed to support military service members struggling with PTSD, traumatic brain injuries and other trauma.
Army veteran and HorsePlay client Lavon credits equine therapy with saving his life. “I can come in here and talk to the horses about anything,” he reveals.
That is why horse-assisted therapy has proven to be such an effective model. Cammack Eller explained, “Both our children and veteran clients benefit from the communicative, connective and bonding nature that our horses provide,” she explains. “These horses are making a real impact on our patients.”
Saving Grace K9s
When Brigette Parson Dean started Saving Grace K9s, she was confident she’d be helping veterans suffering with PTSD. What she didn’t realize was how much they would change her life, too.
“I see such strength in them, as they keep moving regardless of their pain,” she says. “They inspire me to keep going during my own dark times.”
Unlike most service dog organizations, Saving Grace teaches its clients how to train their own service dog. This move helps keep costs down and allows the non-profit to serve more North Carolina vets in need. Many of the dogs are rescues from a local shelter, but sometimes, Saving Grace staff determine the veteran’s own dog has the skills and temperament to become a service dog.
Regardless of the dog’s past, those that complete Saving Grace’s training program fill important roles in the lives of the veterans they serve. Brigette notes that on at least two occasions, the dogs have prevented their veteran-partners from committing suicide. In one instance, the dog pushed a gun away; in the other, the canine’s unrelenting barking and scratching at the door saved his partner from tragedy. More typically, however, the service dogs help their veterans awaken during nightmares, provide comfort during anxiety attacks and remain grounded when faced with triggering events.
For disabled veteran James Dean, having a trained service dog has been a life-changer. His two dogs, Rebel (now retired due to health issues) and Chunk, help him have a more normal life. “My dogs know when I’m not doing well, mentally or physically,” James says. “They will lay on me because they know it’ll calm me, and they keep me from startling so easily when we are out. With them in my life, I can do things with my family and not have to be constantly on guard.”
Today, James serves as the Veteran Liaison for Saving Grace, a role he relishes as it allows him to help fellow veterans through the training process, from start to finish. “I’ve seen animals change lives – and save lives – through this organization,” he says. No wonder he, Brigette and the rest of the Saving Grace team work so hard to provide North Carolina veterans with what they call a four-legged lifeline.
Project 2 Heal
For Charlie Petrizzo, a desire to serve, a deep faith and a love of dogs propelled him to launch Project2Heal, a one-of-a-kind program to breed and raise puppies specifically for use as service dogs.
Few service dog groups have their own puppy breeding program. Instead, most rely on dogs taken from shelters. But Charlie learned just 1 in 12 of these rescued pups become successful service dogs. A big reason for the failure rate: The most important phase of a dog’s development occurs during the first 12 weeks of its life.
“Two-thirds of what a puppy will become as an adult dog is determined by the nurturing, training, and socialization it experiences during this time,” he explains. With this new understanding, Charlie embraced what he calls his labor of love.
“Our mission is to reduce the cost and time needed to place a service dog with a veteran, child with special needs, or adult with disabilities,” he explains. Project 2 Heal accomplishes that goal by raising purpose-bred Labrador retriever puppies, which are ultimately donated to carefully selected service dog organizations.
Now in their 11th year, Project 2 Heal has lived up to Charlie’s vision. He reports nearly 75% of the non-profit’s pups become successful service dogs – a reality that enables Project 2 Heal’s partners to lower costs and reduce wait periods for a fully trained service dog. Taken together, Charlie says those benefits can save lives.
“For a veteran struggling with PTSD, a service dog can reduce night tremors, hypervigilance, outbursts of anger and cortisol levels,” he explains. “Those are the symptoms of PTSD that often contribute to a rate of 22 veterans per day taking their own lives.”
Volunteer Miriam Brown says Project 2 Heal puppies change lives when they become service dogs. That knowledge keeps her coming back, week after week, to clean the grounds, change the water and of course, play with the puppies. “Charlie says these dogs are special,” she states, “and they absolutely are.”
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.”
Owning a pet brings plenty of benefits, and research suggests this is especially true for seniors. That understanding prompted Sheltering Hands, a central Florida-based cat rescue and spay/neutral clinic, to initiate its Seniors for Seniors foster program. The effort connects older Floridians with older felines, and sometimes, it results in unexpected pairings.
Elena Goulet, who chairs Sheltering Hands’ board of directors, recalls one such unusual match. An elderly woman was looking for a docile lap cat to snuggle and love. Shelter staff had the perfect feline in mind, but Dixie, a spitfire calico with plenty of attitude had other ideas. After five years of hissing and nipping at every prospective new parent, Dixie found her person. She let down her guard and crawled into the woman’s lap. The rest, as they say, is history.
“Dixie was not what the woman came in looking for, but she was exactly what she needed,” Elena contends. “They became a family, providing to each other the ‘unknown quality’ the other desperately needed.”
The Seniors for Seniors program is just one of the rescue’s many efforts to improve the livelihoods of unwanted felines. “We are the cat people,” Elena says, “and while we may be small, we’re making a big impact, bringing love in its purest form to cats and their human companions.”
Service Dogs Alabama
Service Dogs Alabama (SDA) is the oldest and largest non-profit in Alabama serving both veterans and children with disabilities. Their services range from providing medical and psychiatric service dogs to children, adults, and veterans with disabilities, to offering facility intervention dogs for schools and courtrooms.
Since its inception in 2010, more than 80 highly trained canines have been placed with qualified individuals and facilities. The non-profit’s programs address a wide range of needs, from dogs who support veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to canines trained to help individuals with diabetes, seizure disorders or autism.
“We exist to find solutions to today’s most significant problems by training dogs to assist in tasks that change lives,” explains Frances McGowin, the group’s executive director and CEO. “These skilled dogs have a powerful effect on the independence, confidence, security, physical health and psychological stability of the individuals and groups that they serve.”
But it’s not just these clients who benefit. SDA partners with a local correctional facility for much of the dogs’ training. Through this program, inmates are paired with a dog and assume responsibility for its care and training. Frances says those who participate in the program gain valuable new life skills, from teamwork and compassion to increased self-control and anger management. Perhaps most importantly, they’re given a sense of purpose.
“Animals have the ability to reach individuals in ways people can’t,” explains Marty Turnage, a long-time volunteer with SDA. “The loyalty and trust that develops between an individual and an animal is unprecedented and pure.”
Paws Between Homes
Suddenly homeless, Henry was forced to take refuge in his car – but there was no place for his beloved dog, Boss. He worried he would be forced to surrender Boss to the local animal shelter, a heart-wrenching choice. Then he found Paws Between Homes (PBH), an Atlanta-based non-profit that finds loving foster families for pets like Boss, in need of temporary care.
Three months later, Henry was back on his feet, ready to welcome Boss back to his new home. Sarah Rosenberg, vice president and co-founder for PBH, witnessed their happy reunion. “Henry’s joy was palpable,” she recalls. “Boss was his family.”
In the short 18-month span that Paws Between Homes has been in operation, the non-profit has provided more than 80 animals with temporary homes and veterinary care while their humans worked to find stable housing. Without PBH, many of those families would have been permanently separated from their furry friends.
“The upheaval caused by an involuntary move is massive,” Sarah emphasizes. “When people get back on their feet in stable housing, they should be able to do so without leaving their pet family member behind.”
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.”
Kopper Top Life Learning Center, Inc.
With little trunk control, Jeff can’t sit or walk on his own. But when he’s on top of his horse at Kopper Top Life Learning Center, he’s the king of the world. He sits up high, and laughs and jokes, all while working hard to build core strength, confidence and love for animals.
“Kopper Top has been a great provider of encouragement, friendship and love,” says Jeff’s mom. “In the course of the 15 years he’s ridden here, they’ve helped him build physical, mental and emotional strength.”
Nestled in the Piedmont region of North Carolina, Kopper Top is dedicated to providing quality therapy in a non-clinical atmosphere. By using animal-assisted recreational therapy, they empower, enable and enhance the quality of life for individuals with special needs.
Founder Deborah Meridith says the animals are the key to the program’s success. “When they ride a horse, they get to control an animal that’s 1,000 to 1,2000 pounds,” she explains. “Knowing they can do that gives them the confidence to know they can accomplish other things, too.”
Seamark Ranch is a faith-based family home system, residential school, and working farm that gives children from families in crisis the tools they need for a brighter future. Since opening its doors in 2007, more than 100 children have called Seamark home. Each has experienced trauma prior to their arrival, but at the sprawling 465-acre ranch, they find love and healing – and some even find their voice.
Equine program coordinator Allene Zvara recalls one such child, who’d been removed from an abusive home. “She wouldn’t speak to anyone,” Allene explains. “Then she fell in love with our horses. The first time we heard her talking, it was to her horse.”
Seamark’s equestrian program uses a hands-on approach to enhance skills, re-establish trust and motivate positive change. By caring for and riding Seamark’s horses, children learn respect for themselves and others, empathy, self-control, confidence, accountability, and problem-solving. Perhaps most importantly, it’s just plain fun.
“The focus is always on the kids,” Allene emphasizes. “Getting to know a horse is a special relationship that reaches the kids…and gets them to open up.”
Susan Jacobs-Meadows had a dream – creating a program that would bring unwanted dogs together with incarcerated men. Canine CellMates is the result, a non-profit that pairs canines rescued from local shelters with inmates at Georgia’s Fulton County Jail.
During the program, the dogs live in the jail, assigned to inmates who care for their charges, and teach them obedience skills. But it’s not just the pups that gain new skills; their handlers learn to set goals and work toward specific objectives. Along the way, they also experience the joy of unconditional love from their canine partners and the unyielding support of the volunteers with Canine CellMates.
“Graduating” from the Canine CellMates program is just the beginning. The non-profit works to place every newly trained dog in a loving, forever home. As for the men, the program includes an “aftercare” component, offering them support upon their release. “We tell them that we are their family for as long as they want us to be – to help, support, listen and be proud of them,” Susan explains.
Canine CellMates wouldn’t exist without Susan and her team of dedicated volunteers, but she insists the animals are the real heroes: “These dogs are catalyst for change.”
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.”
At Beyond Boundaries, they’re used to doing things a little differently, offering hippotherapy–treatment with the use of horses–to children in need. Their work stands out from other equine-therapy programs across the country by providing a combination of physical, occupational, and speech therapy to patients as needed. The horses assist in providing life skills that translate in children’s day-to-day lives.
President, Beth Stamp, founded the organization after introducing her childhood horse to a one-year-old quadrapalegic patient who had been unresponsive to the more traditional methods of physical therapy. After seeing the incredible and instantaneous gains he made, the rest is history. She and her team of volunteers have been offering this one-of-a-kind therapy ever since.
She says the children in treatment aren’t the only ones benefiting. According to Beth, horses “want to have meaning in their life, too.” She believes her therapy horses understand their mission and get just as much out of living a life of purpose as any person would.
Still Meadows Enrichment Center and Camp
It’s been 11 years since Catherine Fisher first visited Still Meadows Enrichment Center and Camp – but clearly, that initial tour made quite an impression. In the ensuing decade, she’s volunteered countless hours to support the Virginia-based non-profit’s day camp, field trip and therapeutic riding programs.
Founded to provide therapeutic activities for children and adults with developmental and physical challenges, Still Meadows relies on its team of horses and other farm animals to keep participates active, engaged and having fun.
“Animals bring out so much for a child with special needs,” Catherine explains. “Whether they’re cuddling a baby chick, feeding the camp cat or riding one of our horses, all I see are huge smiles.”
Time at Still Meadows is packed with fun, but important learning happens, too. Participants practice critical social and communication skills as they engage with volunteers and other campers, and gain a sense of accomplishment – and improve physical skills like balance – as they learn to ride a horse.
“I go home exhausted but satisfied, knowing we brought joy for those few hours we were together,” Catherine says. “These children and adults look forward to attending our programs, and their enthusiasm, smiles and laughter is so fulfilling. It feels great to make a difference.”
Four Paws and a Wake Up – NC
It’s the stories of regained independence and healing that keep volunteer trainer Caroline O’Brien returning to service dog provider Four Paws and a Wake Up – NC year after year.
There’s Zebulun, who retrieved her owner’s phone and towel when she fell in the shower, enabling her to call for help. Or Issachar, who learned to bring his partner water every morning so she could take her pain medication. When she was slow to rise, he would gently place her slippers on her chest, to offer a further nudge.
Sarai helped her veteran become more at ease in public settings, enabling him to manage anxiety and providing him added stability to prevent falls. Marcus assists his veteran with physical mobility issues and even learned to detect seizures before they happen, while Luke helps his wheelchair-bound owner manage doors, trash and much more – giving her the ability to live confidently on her own.
Pat Hairston, founder of Four Paws, has hundreds of similar stories, after all, she says: “This work is all about making a difference in someone else’s life.” At the same time, Four Paws gives its canine partners a second chance, too, as most of the non-profit’s service dogs come from shelters. These once discarded dogs get a new purpose in life, helping their partners live more independently and enjoy life.
Four Paws may be a relatively small program, but it has a meaningful effect on every life it touches. “Whether it’s a volunteer, a shelter worker, a rescued dog, the service dog recipient, or their caregiver, each small impact creates a bigger change,” Pat says.
AgriScience Biotechnology Academy
Where a passionate student intersects with a special opportunity, lives can change for the better. That’s the philosophy AgriScience & Veterinary Assistance Academy brings to their mission of inspiring and educating the world’s next generation of animal science and medicine professionals.
The organization works with high schoolers and veterinary professionals to coordinate learning opportunities for secondary-education students. All students are welcome–both who come from a more traditional background, and those facing challenges, be they in learning style, mental health, or family resources. And the learning experiences they’re provided aren’t busy work either–the students are immediately on-the-job learning to heal, groom, and help animals. All the while, the students are working toward their Veterinary Assistance Certification, so that when their time in the program ends, they’ll be ready to join the workforce right away.
AgriScience & Veterinary Assistance Academy is doing something incredible. Not only are they helping an upcoming generation of students find gainful, rewarding employment with a practical educational head-start in medicine and agri-science, but they’re also helping animals. By ensuring the next generation of veterinarians are well-stocked, motivated, and inspired, they ensure a brighter future of care for the animals that will inevitably need it.
One AgriScience & Veterinary Assistance Academy educator, Holly Hultgren, said it best, “When they get into that classroom it sparks something and that can change their entire life.” These educators are giving students access to more opportunities, while animals give them a sense of belonging. And that’s giving all of us a brighter future.
Stirrups ‘n Strides Therapeutic Riding Center
Stirrups ‘n Strides has a vision. Empower, enrich and inspire. And that’s exactly what they do, every day.
Their approach is pretty straightforward: to help individuals heal through the power of horsemanship. By fostering relationships between humans and horses, Stirrups ‘n Strides provides incredible therapeutic results for hundreds of people with physical, mental and emotional hurdles.
The real beauty of the ‘Strides mission is in how horse and human work together to grow and heal. Nurturing a psychological bond between horse and rider isn’t just wholesome and enjoyable for both. It also promotes self-confidence and control, attentiveness, physical activity, and relationship building skills. Most of all though, the process is cathartic—it inspires a mutual respect, trust, and admiration that is spiritually nourishing and immensely therapeutic.
The Stirrups ‘n Strides Therapeutic Riding Center operates out of Citra, Florida, and is even a certified Olympic Training Facility. But the people they help have come from all over, and continue on, all over, to do incredible things. All thanks, at least in part, to the incredible healing made possible through the special bond between humans and horses.
At King’s Home, a residential refuge for youth, women and children seeking escape from domestic violence, neglect, homelessness and similar circumstances, personal connections are sometimes hard to make. A lifetime of abuse can leave residents wary of new relationships. But the horses at the non-profit’s King’s Stable equine therapy program have a knack for breaking through.
One of the program’s instructors recalls one such incident. “A young resident was quietly brushing one of our older horses. After about half the lesson, she called me into the stall to ask what all the marks were on the horse. I took a deep breath and explained how he had been abused and left with scars. The girl nodded her head and continued to brush. As I was leaving the stall, I heard her whisper to the animal ‘I have scars, too.’
“It’s a moment I’ll never forget as the teen, who had suffered neglect and abuse, was able to connect with the horse and find common ground. I am forever grateful to our equine partners who selflessly bear the weight of so many breakthrough moments that occur in equine therapy.”
Horses for Hope TRC, Inc.
Carmalee says she’s living proof that miracles happen. In 2003, a life-altering crash caused by a drunk driver left her in a wheelchair. Seven years later, she could still only walk about 100 feet using two crutches. Then Horses for Hope called with an opening in its therapeutic riding program.
“Within a few weeks, people noticed a difference in my posture and balance,” Carmalee recalls. By the end of the first semester, she could walk around the block with crutches. A year later, she was down to a single crutch, leading horses for therapeutic riding. And today, she’s the proud owner of two beautiful Paso Fino horses, walks short distances without crutches, and when she uses crutches, can go as far as she wants.
Carmalee credits Diablo, a Quarter Pony with deep blue eyes, and the patient instructors at Horses for Hope with the dramatic improvements. For program founders Gwen Roberts and Dawn Guenot, Carmalee’s story is further affirmation of the program they started 17 years ago.
Therapeutic horseback riding offers many benefits, from physical improvements in balance and strength to cognitive and emotional benefits, ranging from enhanced problem solving to higher self-esteem. Says Carmalee, who has since earned credentials as a certified riding instructor, “I know firsthand how therapeutic riding changes lives.”
Rebel and Kaitlyn share a special bond. Atop Rebel, Kaitlyn can put her cerebral palsy aside, focusing instead on building balance and strength.
Her first visit to Southern Reins, a nonprofit equine therapy program, was in 2016. Since then, with the help of Rebel and a dedicated group of volunteers and staff, Kaitlyn has developed her riding skills – and her strength. “When I started, I needed a horse leader and two side-walkers,” she recalls. “But the first time I got to ride was the first time, in a long time, that I felt free.” Today, she is a proud, independent rider, who credits the Tennessee nonprofit for changing her life.
Kaitlyn’s experience is not unique. Southern Reins currently serves more than 250 clients, up dramatically from the program’s original 12 participants just five years ago. Clients range in age from 3 to 78, and are struggling with wide-ranging disabilities, including Down syndrome, autism, multiple sclerosis and traumatic brain injury.
According to executive director Jill Haag, the program’s rapid growth demonstrates how impactful horse therapy programs can be in the lives of people with disabilities and hardships. “Horses are magnificent creatures that bring out the best in us all,” she explains. “They are powerful, generous, forgiving, challenging – and keenly intuitive to humans. With their help, we witness small victories become pivotal achievements every day.”
First Coast No More Homeless Pets
Before First Coast No More Homeless Pets entered the picture, dogs and cats who found themselves in a Jacksonville, Fla., animal shelter faced a bleak future. Of the 33,000 animals who walked through a shelter door in 2002, 23,000 were euthanized.
First Coast founder Rick DuCharme set out to change those sobering stats, cashing in his retirement savings to start what today is one of the nations’ largest spay/neuter facilities. First Coast also operates a low-cost veterinary clinic and a state-of-the-art veterinary hospital, in addition to other programs designed to keep pets in their loving homes and out of shelters. As a result of these efforts, Jacksonville shelter admissions have been cut in half, and last year, just 719 animals were euthanized.
Today, First Coast has a two-fold mission: supporting low-income pet owners, so they can keep their dogs and cats in their homes and out of shelters, and providing low-cost spay/neuter services, especially for feral and community cats.
“Many pet owners come to us after being turned away from other clinics because they couldn’t afford the care,” explains Mollie Malloy, director of grants for the Florida non-profit. “Because of our programs, these dogs and cats can thrive in their homes.”
The Foxie G. Foundation
The Foxie G Foundation has a simple mission, to rescue, rehab and rehome retired Thoroughbred racehorses and broodmares. Through the group’s rescue, rehabilitation, adoption and permanent retirement programs, Foxie G provides a brighter future for horses that faced an uncertain one.
At any given time, Foxie G cares from roughly 100 horses. Some arrive direct from the racetrack; others are saved from the kill pens. The most heart-breaking cases have often been removed from abusive homes. While many of the horses that find their way to Foxie G are successfully rehabilitated and placed in loving homes, some are not viable candidates for adoption. For those animals, Foxie G’s lush fields become their permanent refuge.
It’s not just horses that find a safe haven at Foxie G; the organization also helps felines in need. Feral or non-socialized cats are special focus, as they rarely receive support or care. They live a difficult life, but Foxie G’s feline spay/neuter, colony care, adoption and sanctuary programs give these often-unwanted cats a soft landing after a hard start at life.
Equine-Assisted Therapies of South Florida
Donald and Beauty are a team. Every Saturday morning, the boy strides confidently into the ring to mount his horse and begin his hour-long equine therapy class. Together, the duo completes a range of activities, all designed to help Donald build muscle, balance and fine motor skills.
Not so long ago, Donald, who struggles with autism and cerebral palsy, slouched in the saddle and couldn’t hold his reins. Today, he rides for a full hour, sitting tall and using his reins to control Beauty. With Beauty’s help, Donald’s balance, gait and core strength have all improved, critical skills that will help him in every facet of his life.
Donald is just one of the more than 135 children and adults who find help and healing annually at Equine-Assisted Therapies of South Florida, a therapeutic riding center that serves those with special needs. As Molly Murphy, the organization’s executive director explains, the typical therapist’s office can be a sterile experience with its harsh lights and cold waiting rooms. While therapy in a clinical setting is important, Equine-Assisted Therapies of South Florida offers a complementary alternative.
Here, surrounded by the nonprofit’s dedicated staff and volunteers, clients pair-up with specially trained horses like Beauty to turn the therapeutic experience upside. “The true beauty of working with horses comes from the simple fact that they do not discriminate or judge,” Molly says. “Our horses level the playing field, giving individuals with special needs an opportunity focus on what they can do, instead of what they can’t.”
Tallapoosa County Girls Ranch
Tallapoosa County Girls Ranch provides a home for school-age girls from troubled backgrounds. For many, the long-term residential program is their first safe place to live, grow and be part of a functioning family. But make no mistake, it’s also a working ranch, complete with cows, chickens and horses, and the girls are central to their care.
Tending to all those animals brings plenty of rewards – but Ranch Director Candice Gulley admits there can be difficulties. “Our animal-based programs teach resiliency,” she explains. “Although you may fall off a horse, dust yourself off and try again. We hope the girls carry this principle with them into their adult lives.”
Those animals are also what sets Tallapoosa apart from other programs designed to help children in crisis. Sure, it’s a hands-on way to teach responsibility and the value of hard work – but Candice says the girls get so much more. “We use these programs to help kids look beyond their past and see a future they can be proud of,” she maintains.
Of course, it’s not all work. All the girls live in family situations at the Ranch, which includes five separate homes, along with a pool, gym, chapel and more. Then there’s the therapeutic benefits of simply being surrounded by nature. Holly Brown, a regular volunteer at the ranch, points out the calming effect animals can have. “Animal-based programs can take away anxiety, fear, depression and build a child’s confidence,” she says.
During her nine years with the organization, Candice and her husband have been “Mom” and “Dad” to 74 girls. In that time, she’s seen plenty of transformation – not just in the children’s outlook on life, but in her own as well. “Working alongside these girls has challenged me to become a better person and role model for kids that need it most,” she contends. “It’s not just a job, these girls are my family.”
Brackett Town Farms
Nichole Toney insists it all started when she and husband Chad inherited a bit of family property in North Carolina. A few chickens and a dog quickly followed. Then things snowballed.
“We all love animals,” she says with smile. “But the problem is we all love different animals.” At first, the family simply joked about starting a petting zoo, but as time went on the idea took hold. A visit to a petting farm in Ohio sealed the deal. Today, Brackett Town Farms serves as a free, therapeutic petting farm focused on helping those with special needs, grief and mental health issues.
“Animals have the amazing power to heal the heart and create a special connection,” Nichole explains. At Brackett Town Farms, those connections happen as visitors learn about the farm’s animals through educational, hands-on, small-group tours and summer volunteer work programs.
Caring for all the farm’s 80 animals means long hours, but Nichole wouldn’t have it any other way. “This is my calling,” she emphasizes. “I get to see children’s joy at learning about new animals and developmentally disabled adults laugh while they play fetch with our farm dog.”
Of course, the animals who call Brackett Town Farms home bask in all that attention, save for a grumpy hedgehog and a few alpacas. The pigs relish belly scratches, the goats compete for head pats and the miniature donkeys are always underfoot, trying to get a few cuddles, too. Little wonder that amidst all that love, Nicole has witnessed plenty of personal breakthroughs.
She recalls one developmentally disabled woman who found her voice at the farm. “She visited with each of the animals and had a wonderful time,” Nichole remembers. During her time at the farm, she even spoke several complete sentences – something her caregivers had been working on for nearly a year. It turns out, all she needed was few Brackett Town animals to serve as conversation partners.
Community Partnership for Pets, Inc.
Most people never step into a shelter. Most animals never step out. That stark reality is the impetus behind Community Partnership for Pets, Inc. (CPPI), a North Carolina-based organization that strives to reduce the number of cats and dogs that are euthanized in state’s shelters.
The non-profit group currently works with 11 of the state’s poorest counties, helping to establish and fund a variety of initiatives. Population control through spay and neuter programs are a focal point, but the non-profit also works to promote responsible pet ownership. As part of that commitment, CPPI teaches elementary students about proper pet care. In 2018 alone, CPPI brought its Pet Responsibility Class to 120 classrooms and 750 students.
Pitt County Animal Services is a key partner in this education effort, which aims to help children think about pets differently and build the next generation of animal advocates. The progressive animal shelter collaborates with CPPI on other programs too, including efforts to help low-income families provide for their four-legged friends. Through CPPI’s pet food pantry, families in financial crisis receive help with pet food and basic pet care, including spay/neuter surgeries.
“If you help people help their pets, it’s a win-win for everyone,” explains Michele Whaley, the director of the Pitt County shelter. “It takes the entire community to work together to provide care for these animals, but when we do that, we’re showing kindness and compassion to both people and the animals they love.”
Carolina Poodle Rescue
Jennifer Reel’s first encounter with Carolina Poodle Rescue (CPR) was a toy poodle name Greta, which she immediately adopted. But in the process of finding Greta, she also found a calling. In the ensuing 17 years, she has adopted and fostered more dogs than she can count and worked tirelessly for CPR. Today, she serves as the vice director of the limited entry, no-kill shelter.
Each year, the South Carolina-based shelter takes in 650-some poodles, poodle mixes and other small breed dogs. Since CPR’s inception, the organization has helped more than 7,000 dogs find their forever families. It also serves as a sanctuary for 80+ seniors, special needs and behaviorally challenged dogs.
Kingston is one of those long-term residents, a beautiful standard poodle with a bad attitude. “We don’t know what happened in Kingston’s past, but it left him deeply troubled and terribly untrusting,” Jennifer explains. For three years he has called Dreamweaver Farms, CPR’s main kennel building, home. There, Kingston enjoys a private indoor run, sleeps on a mattress covered in stuffed animals he collects, and has easy access to a large fenced in field right outside his door.
But it’s not just dogs like Kingston who benefit from CPR’s program. For families looking to welcome their first dog, heal a heart from a lost dog, or simply expand their pack, CPR offers loving companions. For families facing hard decisions, the group provides a safe place for beloved pets to land until a new home can be found. For shelters seeking to save lives and prevent euthanasia, CPR is a resource, especially for senior and special-needs dogs. And for breeders looking to humanely retire their dogs, Jennifer says CPR is ready to help with open arms.
“I tell people that I did not rescue my dogs – they rescued me,” Jennifer says. “The CPR family is full of families whose lives and homes have been completed with a rescue dog.”
Steps and Strides Equestrian Services, Inc.
Rita Nicholson witnessed the benefits of therapeutic riding firsthand, watching as her young daughter with Down Syndrome gained confidence and strength atop a horse. Inspired by the experience, Rita set out to become a certified Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH) instructor and bring the program to other families in need.
After working and managing other therapeutic stables, Rita founded Steps and Strides Equestrian Services, Inc., a non-profit organization dedicated to providing equine-assisted activities for children and adults with a medically diagnosed disability. “We use the whole farm experience to help clients, from the therapy dog to our sheep, cats and donkeys,” she explains. While the horses are the stars, families can also enjoy fishing and nature walks amid the farm’s quiet, peaceful atmosphere.
Steps and Strides is staffed entirely by volunteers and offers its services at no charge. Still, Rita insists she gets far more than she gives. “I am most moved by the confidence that clients get from working with our horses,” she explains, noting that the program’s benefits extend well beyond the barnyard gate. “Parents consistently tell me how it carries over into other areas of their lives.”
Volunteer Gina Morton concurs. “The children learn so much from working with the horses,” she says. “They learn how to interact with this big animal and get physically stronger each week, as they lift saddles, groom horses, attach girths, and get on and off the horses.”
The horses benefit, too. By the time they reach Steps and Strides, most are on their second or third career. For them, the Kentucky-based program offers a chance to remain physically and mentally engaged, surrounded and adored by children.
“This is top-notch horse care at its finest,” Gina insists. “Even after retirement, our horses receive exceptional care.”
Canines for Service
Because of Cyrus, Rob is finally at ease when he goes out to eat with his family. With Micah, Daniel sleeps seven hours a night, instead of two, allowing him to function better and spend more quality time with his young daughter. Because Sam is always by his side, Chris no longer needs a cane. With Forest, Shawn attended his son’s graduation and fulfilled his life-long dream to hike the Appalachian Trail. Gary is no longer concerned that a fall could leave him stuck on the floor, because Sarai is always there to help him up.
Those are just a few of the lives changed by Canines for Service, a North Carolina non-profit that pairs people with a disability with highly trained assistance dogs. Veterans are a special focus for the group, and many of the organization’s clients are disabled service members with mobility limitations, traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic stress disorders.
What sets Canines for Service apart from similar organizations is their commitment to only use dogs from shelters or rescues. “We rescue dogs that have been dumped, abandoned, found as strays or dropped off at kill shelters, often for reasons like ‘the dog had too much energy’ or ‘they aren’t a small puppy anymore,’” explains Colleen Vihlen, the organization’s interim executive director.
She recalls Dexter, who was surrendered to a rescue after his previous owner threatened to shoot him. Then there’s Lilah, who had 30 BB pellets scattered throughout her body, while Maddox was an hour away from euthanasia when Canines for Service gave him a second chance.
Each service dog learns specific commands to mitigate their veteran’s disability. According to Colleen, that training, coupled with the dog’s unwavering loyalty and companionship, can change a veteran’s outlook on life from hopelessness to optimism. “Dogs are remarkable beings,” she says. “They love unconditionally, and their understanding and capability is truly limitless.”
At Canines for Service, the once discarded dogs are given love, a second chance in life, and a new purpose. “They go from the shelter to someone’s hero,” Colleen concludes. “These dogs are truly saving people’s lives.”
Lessons Stick on Horseback
Hugs for Horses is an equine therapy program in Georgetown, SC. One of their most frequent visitors is Cory Baldwin, a special education teacher in Georgetown. He brings his class of elementary school students out on a weekly basis. Many of his students are overcoming challenges like autism. He loves watching his students open up around the horses and thinks it’s amazing how much they’re able to learn and retain at Hugs for Horses.
He knows his students can do anything. You just have to give them the right opportunities, and sometimes the right opportunity is on a saddle.
Learn more about the programs at Hugs for Horses.
A Letter to Hugs For Horses
Hugs for Horses, an equine therapy program in Georgetown, SC, loves to hear how their program impacts their riders. One of the many special letters they’ve received from previous clients shows how impactful riding a horse can be.
Learn more about the programs at Hugs for Horses.
Rodgers’ Big Deal
Hugs for Horses is an equine therapy program operating out of Georgetown, SC. Like a lot of equine therapy programs, they help visitors accomplish goals with the help of therapy horses. But unique to Hugs for Horses, their therapy horses are champions, competing in shows across the Carolinas.
For Rodgers, one of the riders in their program, the most important of those shows is in the ring at Hugs for Horses. Every year Hugs for Horses puts on a horse show for all of its riders. And every year Rodgers looks forward to competing. His dad calls it Rodgers’ “big deal,” and it is a big deal. It’s a playing field where all of the riders at Hugs for Horses can feel like they’re on level ground with everyone else. And for Rodgers’ father, it’s a chance to show off how proud he is to have such a great son.
Learn more about the programs at Hugs for Horses
Hugs for Horses
Hugs for Horses operates out of Georgetown, SC. They use current and former show horses to provide equine therapy. The riders they see face various physical, mental, and social disabilities, and they come in all ages and sizes. Hugs for Horses provides stimulation for those who need it. It’s a chance for those riders to have fun on a horse.
And the staff at Hugs for Horses will tell you, it’s a chance to receive therapy without even realizing it. They say that it’s the therapy that doesn’t feel like therapy. Watching a class, it’s easy to see what they mean.
Learn more about the programs at Hugs for Horses.
Pawsitive Action Foundation
Pawisitive Action Foundation (PAF) breeds, raises and trains assistance dogs for veterans, first responders and children with varying disabilities. One of the organization’s newest initiatives focuses on youth with autism and other developmental disabilities.
The program, dubbed Pawsitive Abilities, was inspired by the impact a service dog named Belle had on the life of Logan, a young student with autism. With Belle at his side, Logan improved his social and communication skills, had greater focus and success in academic areas, and fewer meltdowns. Overwhelmed with the results, PAF launched a pilot program, pairing three teachers in the school district with puppies for their classroom. With support from PAF, the teachers serve as caregivers and trainers for the service dogs. As word of the program’s success has spread through the district, PAF reports even more teachers, administrators and parents have asked for educational assistance dogs in their schools and special needs classrooms.
Service Dogs for Veterans
Twenty veterans commit suicide every day. It’s a sobering statistic that speaks to the need for additional support that some veterans require. It was that realization that prompted Bill Brightman, a U.S. navy veteran, to launch Service Dogs for Veterans (SD4V) in 2014.
From its outset, SD4V has pioneered a unique approach to pairing dogs with veterans in need. Under the watchful eye of highly skilled professionals, the veterans learn to train their own service dog through an intensive seven-month program. Further, all the dogs-in-training come from local shelters and rescue organizations, giving these abandoned canines a second chance and a loving home.
“Our immersion training format gives vets a much-needed purpose,” insists Jim Voss, executive director for the non-profit. “Plus, the resulting deep bond of trust between handler and dog makes for an inseparable team.”
As part of the process, both veterans and their canine partners are inevitably transformed. “Typically, our clients have been under treatment by the Veteran’s Administration for years but have not seen the improvements needed to live a more normal life,” Voss explains. However, after participating in the SD4V training model, program participants report up to a 60 percent reduction in life-limiting symptoms along with a corresponding reduction in medications. As for the dogs, they gain new purpose as a loved and valued companion, helper, friend and family member.
Since the program launched, 16 companion dog teams and 48 ADA-compliant service dog teams have graduated from the program, with 22 additional teams currently in training. SD4V volunteer Mary-Ellen Gregory sums up the program’s importance like this: “The veterans that enter our program are broken shells, but with the help of their service dog, they leave here as confident individuals who have taken back their lives.”
When Jenny Sutherland signed her youngest daughter up for riding lessons, she never imagined where it would lead. But after seeing the change in her daughter, she began a six year journey, which culminated in the founding of Unbridled Hope, an equine-assisted therapy and learning facility.
Jenny still remembers that first lesson: “My tiny, quiet daughter was paired up with a huge horse named Buster. The moment she got on that horse I saw the light come back into her eye and she started to find her confidence.”
Inspired by the transformation in her own child, Jenny became certified in equine-assisted psychotherapy and equine-assisted learning. She and her family purchased a 28-acre ranch and Unbridled Hope was born. In 2018, with the help of her team of 14 horses and a tireless group of volunteers, Jenny helped facilitate over 150 healing sessions, helping children, families and adults scarred by trauma.
True to its name, Unbridled Hope isn’t about riding. Rather, it’s about building relationships. “Nothing we do is forced,” Jenny explains, noting that bridles and harnesses are rarely used. “We don’t physically control our horses; they choose to participate in a session.”
As a result, sessions at Unbridled Hope are really partnerships between the horse and the participant, all supervised by trained facilitators. “Horses have a way of cutting right to the heart of the matter,” Jenny continues. “They’re very intuitive, and have an innate ability to mirror our emotions, ultimately resulting in enhanced self-awareness by our clients.”
In the sessions, horses and clients learn to trust each other and work together, as they complete a series of activities. Along the way, participants gain self-confidence, improve self-control and find hope. “There is no magic formula for how healing happens,” Jenny insists. “Each session is unique because each person and horse is unique. Learning to work together as a team despite our differences and becoming a true partner is what allows our clients to heal.”
Aiken Equine Rescue
Jim Rhodes found his life’s passion the day he took on management of the then newly established Aiken Equine Rescue. In the ensuing 18 years, the 90-acre farm has placed more than 900 horses into loving, adopted homes, becoming the largest horse rescue center in the southeastern United States. At any given time, between 60 and 70 horses reside at the farm.
In this regard, Aiken Equine has achieved its original purpose: to provide a temporary home for ‘displaced’ horses as they waited to be adopted, but somewhere along the way, the organization’s mission expanded.
“As we helped these horses find homes, we realized it also provided us a platform to use our horses to help people,” Jim explains. Today, the rescue center partners with Aiken County’s early-intervention program for first-time offenders. “To complete their community service, offenders learn that must manage their emotions or our horses will avoid them,” Jim explains. Since the non-profit began working with the Aiken County Courts, more than 500 offenders and at-risk youth have participated in the program.
The rescue center also works with the Saratoga WarHorse program, a national effort to assist military veterans suffering with post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD). Through this unique, three-day program, Saratoga uses equine therapy to reduce veterans’ symptoms of depression, post traumatic stress and suicidal thoughts. As part of this program, nearly 80 veterans visit the farm annually.
Both programs are effective in part because of the nature of the horse. “Horses are naturally skittish and hyper-vigilant,” Jim says. Sensitive to anxiety and subdued anger, horses are also quick to pick up on verbal and non-verbal cues, providing immediate feedback to participants.
Still, at Aiken Equine Rescue, it’s the horses that come first. “Our entire organization is dedicated to giving horses second chances and new, joy-filled lives, and giving people revitalized, re-energized horses, each with a renewed sense of purpose and dignity,” Jim emphasizes.
Autrey Mill Nature Preserve and Heritage Center
The animal ambassadors are a big draw at Autrey Mill Nature Preserve and Heritage Center, located in Johns Creek, Georgia. The nature center’s chickens, ducks and rabbits offer visitors a chance to touch, feed and learn about farm animals.
Some, like Sally the Chicken, even embark on adventures outside the preserve’s 46-acre site, visiting local libraries and schools. “Every day, our animal ambassadors teach the community the importance of kindness toward all the creatures on earth,” explains Mary Winder, the center’s education and program director. In return, Mary says she’s inspired by the delight of visitors as they explore and observe the native reptiles and farm animals that call Autrey Mill home.
In 2018, more than 5,500 individuals attended one of the nature center’s many programs. Through these educational initiatives, children, youth and adults learn about the environment, the region’s history, and the importance of protecting the ecosystem and caring for the animals who live here.
Mary notes that many of Autrey Mill’s animals were gifted from the community. “Most of them were taken in from individuals who had kept them as pets,” she explains, adding that their stories provide an opportunity to advocate for research and forethought before pet acquisitions.
Angel Heart Farm
Six-year-old Gaige had never touched a pony, but he was in good hands with Rocky, a show ring pro. Together, the two teamed up to compete at the Welsh Pony Nationals, walking away with a National Championship ribbon. An impressive feat made all the more inspiring given Gaige had recently been diagnosed with cancer and was in the midst of treatment.
Tracy Kujawa, founder and executive director for Angel Heart Farm, brought the two together, just one of the hundreds of children and families her organization has helped. “Cancer is hard,” the four-time cancer-survivor acknowledges. “It robs children of their childhood. It’s scary, painful, isolating and the long-term effects are endless.” But at Angel Heart Farm, children facing life-threatening illnesses have a place to focus on something besides diagnoses and treatments.
Since opening its doors 18 years ago, more than 350 children and their families have saddle up for Angel Heart’s unique brand of horse therapy. “After volunteering at many equine therapy programs, I knew what I liked and didn’t like,” Tracy says, which is why Angel Heart is a family-focused, one-on-one experience.
The kids, side-by-side with their siblings and parents, receive professional horsemanship lessons. More than just a riding class, at Angel Heart Farm children learn how to care for their favorite horse, empowering them as caregivers instead of care recipients. Like Gaige, many participants even go on to compete in horse shows – all at no cost to the families served.
“We are very blessed to have the most giving and loving equine in the world,” Tracy insists. “While we can’t cure cancer, with the help of our amazing horses, we can bring hope, faith and love to these special families.”
Since 2010, Hope Reins has helped over 2,000 children in life crisis, offering them hope and healing amid its scenic 33-acre ranch and small herd of rescued horses.
According to Christy Burkey, director of marketing and communications for the non-profit, equine-therapy can be especially beneficial for those who have undergone significant trauma. “Many times, kids can’t verbalize their feelings, but they just need to be around a caring human and a loving animal to create a bond of trust,” she explains. “It’s only then, when they feel safe, that they can begin to heal and face the pain.”
Perhaps it helps that all of the non-profit’s horses have a story of rescue, including some who suffered significant abuse and neglect. Christy says that shared connection can serve as a bridge to hope for the kids and their families.
Part of what makes Hope Reins so special is the extraordinary connection between organization’s trainers and its horses. The special friendship forged between Anne Sanders and Cadence, a 37-year-old Morgan horse, exemplifies the kindness, patience, and compassion that permeates the entire ranch.
Cadence arrived severely underweight and suffering from a debilitating hoof condition called laminitis. Even when she couldn’t move or lower her head, volunteers would cradle her feed bucket in their arms, so she could eat. Anne made Cadence her project, sitting with her for hours at a time – grooming, petting and just loving her.
“I was drawn to Cadie because she needed me,” Annie explains. “She changed my life forever and I will always be grateful to her.” Unlike most horses with chronic laminitis, because of the care she received at Hope Reins, Cadence passed away not because of her illness, but simply because of old age.
Whispering Manes is an equine-assisted therapy program in Miami, FL. Erin Bower, the executive director at Whispering Manes, describes it as a place where people with a wide range of disabilities are welcome to work with horses, with the hope of encouraging physical, mental, and emotional healing and strengthening. That healing only happens through the work of an amazing staff and connections formed with some incredible horses.
The people who come out to visit have many different struggles. Some of them seek to improve their confidence, others have physical disabilities, or emotional challenges, and equine-assisted therapy has something for every single one of them. Christina DeQuesada, volunteer and special education professional, says that you can see a bit of every type of therapy at Whispering Manes. She compares it to aspects of occupational, physical, and even emotional therapy. Learning to ride a horse can positively touch a number of different elements of anyone’s life.
Robin Bramson, the Head Riding Instructor and Program Director, explained how much riding a horse can improve a person’s communication, both verbally and nonverbally. She says, “A horse gives you immediate feedback and it’s nonjudgmental…horses are herd animals and they have no spoken language so they depend on reading body language of other horses.” She continues, “They depend on reading body language of people for their survival.” Robin says that all of the little things you do on a horse can translate into life skills that can be used out of the saddle — the way you’re talking to other riders and people around you, and the way you’re signaling the horse. All of those things add up to make a very special experience that’s hard to find with any other animal.
Jenny rides horses at Whispering Manes. She brushes them. She helps feed them and care for them. She’s also legally blind, and overcoming low self-esteem. Riding horses makes her feel better about herself.
Jenny started coming to Whispering Manes as a volunteer. She served as a side walker, helping riders maintain correct form while on the horse. But she still had her own confidence issues, and serving as a side walker wasn’t helping with those. She wanted to be on the horses.
Then one of the staff members told her that her legally blind status might allow her to take lessons with Whispering Manes. Since then Jenny has taken several lessons. She says that in under a year’s time she’s gone from hardly being able to get on the horse by herself to performing various balance exercises. She’s not just riding, she’s getting good at riding. She’s building her confidence, and she’s building a connection with the horses she rides.
That connection is one of the most important things to Jenny. The horses feel like friends to her, and she can’t believe the level of trust they have in their riders. Jenny says, “I mean it’s just cool because it’s this huge animal, you know, and you’re able to have a bond and a trust with it.”
Javier and Ben
Eleven years ago, Javier lived in his home country of Spain. Eleven years ago, Javier was paralyzed from the waist down after a car accident crushed part of his spinal cord. Even after surgery to repair the damage, he was told that walking would be unlikely. Even his parents had reservations about his recovery.
Javier didn’t accept that. He moved across the Atlantic to Miami, FL to pursue a heavy physical therapy program. That’s when he was introduced to Whispering Manes, and the people and horses there.
Whispering Manes is a therapeutic riding program in Miami, FL. They work with people who have different levels of horse riding ability and who have varying types of disabilities. His physical therapist highly recommended that he attend classes — or almost forced him to attend, to hear Javier put it.
It was clear to the staff at Whispering Manes that Javier wasn’t a horse person. The horses didn’t care, they helped anyway. He may not have liked the idea of working with horses at first, but it was hard not to notice how much improvement he was making. Javier’s attitude toward the horses has gone from sour to a cautious optimism, and that only seems to keep improving as his connection grows stronger with the horse he works with most, Ben.
Ben is a cross between a draft horse and a paint horse, and Erin, the executive director at Whispering Manes, describes him as having the best qualities of both. Ben is the second horse that Javier has worked with at Whispering Manes, and he’s the horse that Javier has had the deepest connection with. Javier even refers to Ben as a friend — something he never expected to call any of the horses before starting. And now all of the hours of therapy with Ben and on his own are paying off for Javier. He recently took his first step under his own power since the accident. He’s confident there will be many more.
Learn more about the programs at Whispering Manes
A Special Place for Horses and Humans
Special Equestrians of Georgia (SEG) has a focused goal, to provide a supportive environment that empowers all types of riders, through equine assisted activities, to reach their full potential. How they execute on that goal, is a beautiful mix of programs that focus on the need of the individual.
Their therapeutic riding program is specifically design for people with special needs to provide benefits including increased independence, improved self-esteem and confidence, as well as positive social interactions. This program is supported by SEG’s two PATH certified instructors, a licensed Occupational Therapist and a licensed Physical Therapist to assist those with needs.
One of those PATH instructors is Stacey Edwards, SEG’s Founder, Lead Instructor and Program Director. In the fall of 2007, after much experience in the field of therapeutic riding, Stacey founded SEG. By use of her extensive knowledge, she felt it was possible to reach even more children and adults with special needs in the North Georgia counties. Through her network, Stacey has been able to build and grow SEG to what it is today.
In addition to therapeutic riding, SEG also offers unique programs like Mini Horse Outreach. The program brings the magic of horses to children and adults who, due to illness or disability, can not come to the farm. Using specially trained and housebroken miniature horses, SEG travels into the community on “mini” visits to schools, hospitals, rehabs, nursing homes, and special events for both the special needs and community at large.
The work at SEG continues to grow and expand beyond the organization’s wildest dreams. Through these great programs, and with the help of the horses, individuals are allowed to process thoughts, beliefs, behaviors and patterns that often act as a metaphor to real life. That is the true reward in the work done at SEG.
The Dogs of Service Dogs Alabama
Service Dogs Alabama in Hope Hull, AL, finds dogs from local shelters and gives them a second chance at a meaningful life. They train dogs to assist students in schools, help with mobility, and alert for things like diabetes. They help everyone around them emotionally and physically, and the dogs become close friends with their handlers. The good they do is immeasurable, and that good all comes from former shelter dogs.
Popcorn and Her Kids
Popcorn is a service dog trained by the program at Service Dogs Alabama. She comes in every day for all of the students at Wetumpka Elementary School. Just having Popcorn in the classroom helps students cope with almost anything. To them, if Popcorn can handle something, so can they. She gives all of the kids added confidence, and she pays special attention to the ones who need her more.
Ian and Pierce
Ian is a seventeen-year-old living in Alabama with his mom and his dog Pierce. Ian has type one diabetes. It’s made life hard for him. He grew up never knowing when an emergency might happen, and according to him and his mom it’s more than just checking his blood sugar regularly. Problems can just pop up without warning. That’s why he has Pierce.
“It’s just fear. That would be my life without him.”
Pierce is a diabetic assist dog trained by the program at Service Dogs Alabama. He was rescued from a local shelter and trained to detect the scent of Ian’s blood sugar changes. He’s been with Ian for two years now, and Ian says it’s changed his life. He and his mom are grateful for the new found freedom.
“Having Pierce in our lives has allowed me to breathe a little easier, to rest a little easier.”
But for Ian, it’s so much more than the freedom to live his life. It’s just the freedom to live. Pierce is a friend to Ian. Ian thinks that the two of them couldn’t be more perfect for each other.
“There probably couldn’t have been a dog that could have been a better match. He seems to be one of the only living beings that can keep up with me — human or dog.”
It’s so amazing to see everything that Pierce has added to Ian’s life. Ian has a friend and a protector in Pierce. It’s truly humbling to see such an amazing animal, and it’s an honor to support an organization that trained him.
Emily and Tucker
Emily is a college senior in Alabama. She’s about to graduate, and she’s considering grad school. And soon, she’ll be marrying her fiancé. Those things didn’t come easily for her. She has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. It’s a connective tissue disorder which affects her joints. On top of that, a few years ago she found out that she has epilepsy. She credits her ability to pursue her goals to her service dog, Tucker.
“I call him my fur angel.”
Tucker was originally trained for Emily’s mobility and stability issues brought on by her diagnosis of Ehlers-Danlos. But after getting Tucker, he began to signal before Emily’s seizures.
“He started picking up on my seizures. And he wasn’t trained for that. Tucker taught himself, somehow, to detect them.”
Emily is so grateful for all of the amazing things Tucker has been able to do for her. She credits him with giving her a more normal college experience, and a more confident life experience. Tucker has been as big a part of Emily’s life as anyone else. He’s helped her accomplish some huge things.
“I don’t think I’d be graduating from college if I didn’t have Tucker in my life. I think I’d be stuck at home in my room if it wasn’t for him.”
As Emily looks forward to her upcoming graduation and marriage, she might imagine what her life will be like. One thing that’s sure is that Tucker will be nearby no matter what happens. More dogs like Tucker are coming out of Service Dogs Alabama every year, and it’s our privilege to help them bring more Tuckers to the world.
Captain, Mason, and the kids of Holtville Middle School
Holtville Middle School in Alabama is like any other middle school. Students come in every morning and learn things like English, math, and science. But Holtville has two furry additions to their faculty which most other middle schools don’t have. On the first day of school, students are greeted by Captain and Mason, two service dogs provided by the program at Service Dogs Alabama.
“On the first day of school they were so excited to see everybody. And they would just run around, back and forth, trying to greet everybody.”
-Clayton, student at Holtville Middle School
Captain and Mason have been with Holtville Middle School for about four years now. They were trained to help students who are having a hard time, and they’ll go from classroom to classroom to find students who they sense need some encouragement. They can sense stress, and they will do everything in their power to help with it.
“Children have tried to push them away, but they’re pretty adamant. And by the end of the class period, the dog has his head on your lap and the student is petting him.”
-Kelli, teacher and Mason’s handler
The dogs make their students feel more comfortable. Many of them have said they feel like they’re at home when Captain or Mason come into the room. The students are more at ease, and can concentrate on their work easier. It’s relaxing to see Captain and Mason. The two even make it easier for students to get through tests and their school work.
“You see the dog and you look at your paper and a second later — and you don’t know how — you’re done.”
-Chloe, student at Holtville Middle School
Captain and Mason don’t just make school work easier. They have big impacts on the mood of the classroom. The teachers who see them interact with students every day say that the dogs are able to calm the room. Just the fact that they’re in the building seems to make everything easier. And they’ve had big impacts in the lives of individual students.
“I’ve watched those dogs change children’s lives. That’s amazing in itself, to have an animal come in and literally change someone’s life.”
The connection that Captain and Mason have with the kids at Holtville Middle School is nothing short of incredible. They’ve been able to help so many students, and just by being there and being endlessly supportive. We’re happy to help Service Dogs Alabama train more dogs like them.
Jeremy and Daisy
Jeremy spent eight years as a combat medic in the Army, and from 2004-2005 he did a tour of duty in Iraq. He says he saw the best and the worst of humanity while he was there. Unfortunately, it’s the worst that he remembers the most. Those memories have made life hard for him since returning home.
“The first week back I had a nightmare, and after that I couldn’t get to sleep at all. I had to choose between staying up all night or having the bravery to go back to sleep because some of the stuff I saw over there will never leave me.”
Jeremy was desperate for some sort of relief. If not for himself, so he could be a good father to his daughter. He loves spending time with his little girl, but the things that stayed with him from Iraq made it hard to face day-to-day life. Those things made it hard to be there for her. Things were getting bad for Jeremy.
“I was contemplating suicide before I got Daisy. So getting her was a matter of life and death. I had already been through countless medications, countless doctors.”
Daisy was trained to sense when Jeremy is about to have a nightmare, and she can lick and nuzzle him to either wake him up or calm him down. Jeremy was skeptical. He didn’t think it would work. How was a dog, even a trained one, going to help him sleep when a doctor couldn’t? It was like flipping a switch on that first night.
“The first night I got Daisy, I was able to sleep without any kind of medication or anything like that. It was truly an amazing experience for me.”
Daisy quickly became more than a sleep aid, and more than a service dog. She became a member of Jeremy’s family. He credits her with keeping his life together, and with keeping him around. Daisy has helped him have a better life, and be there for his daughter.
“My relationship with Daisy has gotten stronger — I mean, yeah, it was strong in the beginning, don’t get me wrong. She really just became the glue of my little family.”
Jeremy is thankful for all that Daisy has given. He’s thankful for the peace she brings him at night. He’s happy that his daughter has been able to connect with Daisy, and that Daisy has helped him be there for his daughter. And despite all of these amazing things Daisy has done, Jeremy is happiest when she’s able to just be a dog.
“I like to take Daisy to the river after all the work she does for me, I get to let her loose and let her be free. Those are my favorite moments with her. She is not thinking about me, she is thinking about the water and herself. It’s beautiful to watch.”
It’s clear that she means so much to him. Daisy has given so much for Jeremy, and for his daughter. It’s a beautiful thing, and we’re happy to be a small part in supporting it. And Daisy is just happy to be there for her family.