Van Raub Elementary School
The chickens at Van Raub Elementary really do rule the roost. Drop by the school during recess and you’ll find a flurry of activity by the chicken coop as students check in on their favorite hens. While watching the birds’ antics provides plenty of entertainment, the school’s principal, Summer Gault, affirms there’s much more in play.
“We work hard to develop well-rounded young people, doing our part to help our students be their best selves daily,” she explains. Learning to care for the school’s chickens contributes to that goal.
As fourth graders, students can become “Chicken Tenders.” As the title suggests, they assume responsibility for the birds, under the watchful eye of teacher Laura Brace. New this year, students from the school’s Life Skills class joined the Chicken Tender ranks, extending the learning and leadership opportunities to some of Van Raub’s at-risk youth.
“Watching the smiles that the chickens bring to all of the students, even those that just watch and admire from a distance, has been an incredible experience,” Laura says. “But there’s plenty of learning too, as students gain experience in responsible pet ownership, animal advocacy and topics related to animal welfare.”
For fourth grader Josh, it’s just fun. “I like that we care about them, learn to protect them, clean up after them and give them comfort,” he says. “Plus, I’ve learned to become more responsible and how to lead without being a boss.”
Raven Rock Ranch
When Irene* arrived at Raven Rock Ranch, she’d given up on life. She was failing high school, choosing the wrong kind of friends and had attempted suicide. Then along came Rooney, a gentle bay gelding who fell in love with the troubled teen.
“Rooney would follow her around wherever she went,” recalls Sandy Matts, chief mental health officer and director of Raven Rock Ranch. “The feeling was mutual. With Rooney, Irene felt alive and happy.”
Slowly, the grip of depression loosened, and Irene began to make better choices. She graduated from high school on time – a feat her mom called a “miracle” – and is now attending college. According to Matts, the rescued thoroughbred gelding, once destined for the kill pen, is a big reason for Irene’s transformation.
Sandy founded Raven Rock specifically for kids like Irene, drawing on her own experience as an at-risk teen positively impacted by her childhood horse. The nonprofit, which rescues horses and pairs them with troubled kids, started with just one horse and a single client. Today, nine horses call Raven Rock home and the organization reports helping scores of children and families in its decade-plus run.
“Ninety-eight percent of our clients come in with suicidal ideation, but after one year of treatment, that number drops to less than two percent,” Matts explains, but it’s the stories behind the statistics that drive home the importance of Raven Rock Ranch. She adds, “I have countless notes and emails from kids and their parents telling me that they would not be alive if not for the ranch.”
*Client name changed for privacy reasons.
Paws for Purple Hearts
Booth is a two-year-old black lab with a smile that makes your heart bubble and a helicopter tail that looks about ready to take off. She’s also a service dog, with a mission to help veterans struggling with Post-Traumatic Stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injuries and similar trauma-related conditions.
Booth is part of Paws for Purple Hearts (PPH), a first-of-its-kind program offering Canine Assisted Warrior Therapy® for wounded service members and veterans. The non-profit was founded and continues to be led by Dr. Bonnie Bergin, one of the world’s leading researchers in service dog therapy.
Today, PPH is a national organization with seven facilities across the country. It is accredited by Assistance Dog International and is one of three programs invited to participate in the Puppies Assisting Wounded Service Members Act pilot program – an initiative launched by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“Dogs are far more intuitive than people often give them credit for,” notes Danielle Stockbridge, a marketing and communication specialist with PPH. “They can pick up on the emotional state of a Warrior before the Warrior can sort out how they’re feeling themselves. The dogs provide comfort without judgment.”
A recent session with Booth offers a prime example. The black lab had taken a liking to one of PPH’s clients. While the veteran has worked with several dogs, her connection with Booth is special. “Booth makes her feel calmer and less anxious,” Stockbridge explains, recalling a recent incident where the intuitive canine put her training into action. “The veteran was having intrusive thoughts. Booth picked up on it, nudged her and laid across her lap to provide stress-reducing pressure.” With a little help from the canine, the veteran was able to break free from dark thoughts.
These moments – big and small – are daily occurrences at PPH. “Through our canine-assisted therapeutic programs and Assistance Dog placements, I get to see Warriors lives changed every day,” Stockbridge adds. It’s a program she wishes had been available to her grandfather, a veteran who struggled with flashbacks, anger and alcoholism. “It’s my goal that no family has to suffer the way my mother’s family did, and that every Warrior is able to get the help they need.”
Brave Meadows Therapeutic Riding Center
Bobby was born with Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus, he struggles with a seizure disorder and uses a wheelchair to get around. Throughout his life he has endured multiple surgeries and countless hours of therapy and procedures. It was on the way to one of those appointments that his mom noticed the new sign for Brave Meadows Therapeutic Riding Center.
“My mom is a horse person, so she’d been on the lookout for an equine therapy program,” Bobby recalls. “She called right away, and I became one of their first students.”
At the time, then six-year-old Bobby became fast friends with Leia, a half-Arabian chestnut mare. With Leia, Bobby grew stronger, improved his balance, built confidence and even found his voice. He explains, “I wasn’t talking to anyone else at the time, but after a week or two, my mom said I started talking to Leia like she was a person as soon as I rolled into the barn.”
Now 22 years old, Bobby acknowledges he wasn’t the child who would receive playdates, sleepovers or birthday party invites. He said, “Week after week, my barn friends – both animal and human – became my opportunity to socialize and hang out.”
Brave Meadows’ director, Shannon Patrick, founded the center with the aim of improving lives like Bobby’s through the healing power of horses. “Running Brave Meadows is a labor of love, and while it can be challenging, it’s also incredibly rewarding,” she noted. “We’re a place where people and animals come to find comfort, joy and a sense of belonging, and we’re so proud of the work we do and the impact we have on our community.”
Tender Little Hearts
Terry Holmes-Steck knows you don’t have to be big to have a big impact. Her miniature horses prove it every day, as they encourage struggling young readers and touch the lives of those most in need of comfort.
Following a 40-year career as a dental hygienist, Homes-Steck launched Tender Little Hearts (TLH) Mini Tales and Assisted Equine Services, a non-profit that spreads joy with the clip-clop of tiny hooves. With a mission to build productive relationships and make a positive impact in the lives of others, TLH has one goal: to make the world a better place.
That’s where Mazy, Dolly, Boone, Buddy and Josie come in. Through TLH’s Mini Tales program, the therapy horses and donkeys encourage young readers with regular visits to local schools and libraries. But it’s not just the young who benefit from the tiny quintet’s charm; TLH also brings the qualified therapy animals to hospitals, rehab centers, memory care facilities and the like. “We go anywhere a human can benefit from our programs and services,” Holmes-Steck says.
To date, TLH has provided over 10,000 hours of volunteer service to enrich the lives of Arizona’s children, adults and seniors. Volunteer Cindy Gibson attests to the organization’s value. “I love the smiles that spread as residents hear the little horses have arrived and the stories they share as childhood memories are roused,” she says. Gibson’s also witnessed the impact on children. “Listening to a child read to a horse, while ensuring their new friend can see the pictures is magical,” she muses.
Running the non-profit requires an incredible amount of work, but Holmes-Steck refuses to slow down. “Many go through life not finding their purpose, but after just one equine therapy visit, I knew I had found mine,” she explains. “These little horses do powerful things.”
Assistance Dogs of the West
For Marcie, service dog Fenway is a beacon of independence.
“He never gets tired of helping me, no matter how many times I drop my cell phone,” she explains. “He’s as excited as if it is the first time he’s ever assisted me, and the look of joy and satisfaction on his face is priceless.”
Marcie and Fenway are just one of the hundreds of success stories made possible by Assistance Dogs of the West (ADW). Since 1995, the New Mexico non-profit has paired service dogs with clients requiring support for mobility impairments, autism spectrum disorders, developmental disabilities and more.
More recently, ADW added a courthouse dog program, which places canines in criminal justice settings. In this role, the service dogs work with crime victims, predominantly children, offering comfort and security as they provide depositions and give testimony in court.
“Our service dogs open so many opportunities for the clients they support,” says ADW volunteer Susan Rivenbark. As a Puppy Raiser, Susan has raised and trained five ADW dogs, witnessing first-hand the transformative impact they can have – whether partnered with a single client or selected for ADW’s courthouse dog program.
Long-time client Marcie concurs, noting, “ADW has made a tremendous impact on the overall quality of my life. They breed and train the most incredible dogs that are tailored to my disability-related needs. Fenway and ADW are the rainbow in what could have been a dark cloud.”
Patriot PAWS Service Dogs
Tyanhna a disabled Army veteran, rarely left her home due to struggles with pain, limited mobility, and PTSD. Then she met Dude and life got a little bit easier.
“I’d really given up, and then I found Patriot PAWS,” she recalls. “Now Dude goes with me everywhere. He gets me out of the house, at least for a walk…and whether the pain is really bad or it’s a good day, he’s always there.”
When Lori Stevens founded Patriot PAWS Service Dogs, she admits to underestimating the demand. “It never crossed my mind that there would be a waiting list for people in need of working dogs,” she says. “I quickly learned the reality – demand for well-trained dogs far outpaces supply.”
In part, that’s due to the high cost to care for and train these canines. On average, it takes $35,000 and 24 to 30 months for a young dog to complete the Patriot PAWS training program. To help meet the ever-growing need, the Texas-based non-profit relies on dedicated volunteers, including an innovative program with three correctional facilities run by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
Lori says inmates who choose to participate in the program get a new “leash on life.” In addition to career training, they learn critical life skills such as conflict resolution, time management, and problem-solving – all while gaining a sense of purpose. The program’s benefits are clear, from the low recidivism rate (just 3%) to the change in how participating inmates interact with others.
The non-profit’s army of volunteers also includes college students and other community members. Thanks to this combined support, Patriot PAWS has paired more than 300 service dogs with veterans and others with mobility disabilities, all at no cost to the recipients.
“You can see a veteran’s life change before your very eyes, because of a dog. Their whole demeanor changes” says Sherri, a Patriot PAWS volunteer. “They can feel the weight of life lifted off their chests and they know tomorrow will be brighter with this companion by their side. Patriot PAWS is truly doing life-changing work.”
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.”
The Holistic Approach Equine Therapy Offers
Equine therapy is unique in its holistic approach where patients receive physical, occupational, and speech therapies all at once. The best part of it is you are having fun and not realizing how hard you’re really working. It changes lives and is an emotional journey–even for the therapists who do this every day.
Teddy & Nora’s Special Relationship
Nora is a young woman with spina bifida. She’s paralyzed from mid-back down, so her balance is extremely compromised. Despite all that she has had to overcome, she always rises to the occasion. Working with Teddy the horse has changed her life in so many ways, including improving her confidence and giving her enough mobility to learn how to drive.
Beth, the founder of Beyond Boundaries, grew up caring for a rescue horse. So when her first patient as a Physical Therapist was a one-year-old quadriplegic, she put him on her horse to see if it could help him. And that’s when everything started to change.
The Power of Equine Therapy
Beth, the founder of Beyond Boundaries, grew up caring for a rescue horse. So when her first patient as a Physical Therapist was a one-year-old quadriplegic, she put him on her horse to see if it could help him. And that’s when everything started to change.
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.”
LifeLine Assistance Dogs
Ryan Cambio saw a need and filled it with his love of canine companions. As his story goes, while working as an apprentice dog trainer, he noticed certain populations of people were typically not able to qualify for service dogs based on the requirements other organizations had. He felt so strongly that the dogs he was training could help these niche, underserved populations–like First Responders with PTSD and medically complex kids under 14 with multiple disabilities–he decided to create LifeLine Assistance Dogs to serve their needs.
Since then, he and his staff have been custom-training dogs–mostly labs or lab mixes–for the specific needs of each client and their family. He says the sign of success they look for is when a dog starts ignoring their trainer and listens to their new family instead. He says that means “the dog is falling into the role they were destined for.”
Ryan says his dogs can be trained to assist people at work, home, and/or school, but the biggest benefit his clients seem to receive is the sense of calmness that comes over them and their families after getting their service dog. He says a dog’s non-judging presence is worth more than any specific task they can be trained to do.
Healing with Horses Ranch
Horses are the true teachers at Healing with Horses Ranch.
The Texas-based nonprofit provides multiple equine-assisted programs for people experiencing learning, behavioral, mental, and physical challenges. It serves three core populations – at-risk youth, veterans and clients with disabilities such as Down syndrome, autism and cerebral palsy – through a combination of adaptive riding, equine-assisted learning, and equine-assisted counseling services.
“They may be paid in hay, but we see our horses as specially trained staff members that partner with us to help our clients,” says Patty D’Andrea, founder of Healing with Horses Ranch. She contends the bond between clients and their four-legged therapist deepens the effectiveness of every therapy session.
Volunteer Bethany Wager concurs. The University of Texas graduate student puts her training in health behavior and education to work at the Ranch on a regular basis. “It’s amazing to watch clients come alive when riding or working with the horses,” she says, noting how interacting with the gentle giants builds confidence, resilience and independence.
“Every day I get to see people learn how to relax, how to communicate more clearly, how to advocate for their horse because they listened to its needs,” Patty adds. “They see how when they are not focused on their horse, it gets anxious or even frustrated, but when they take a deep breath and get present, their horse relaxes.”
Best of all, clients put the lessons learned at the Ranch into practice once they leave the farm. “We don’t just touch lives,” says Patty, “we change lives.”
Simple Sparrow Care Farm
Eight years ago, Jamie Tanner and her husband Eric purchased a small farm, intent on giving their children the experience of learning, growing and healing surrounded by animals. It turns out, many local families wanted the same thing, so in December 2017, Simple Sparrow Care Farm was born.
While relatively few care farms currently operate in the U.S., they are common in other parts of the world, especially Europe. Like the name implies, these farms tap into therapeutic agricultural practices to facilitate healing. At Simple Sparrow, guests learn to care for land, gardens and animals. Along the way, they become better equipped to care for themselves and others.
“Animals have an innate ability to accept, comfort and calm us,” Jamie explains. “This ability lends itself to healing psychological traumas.” Equally important, the life skills learned at the farm extend well beyond the barnyard gate, vividly underscoring the importance of kindness, gentleness and self-control and empowering individuals to nurture positive relationships and leave toxic ones behind.
“We are here for a purpose: to care for the earth and all the animals that live here with us,” Jamie says. “When we help another creature live up to their full potential, we live up to ours as well.”
Better Piggies Rescue
People fall in love with cute, little potbellied pig babies, but they often don’t realize they may weigh up to 200 pounds at maturity. Overwhelmed and unprepared, Danielle Betterman, director of Better Piggies Rescue, says many pig owners simply abandon their no longer teacup-sized pets.
“On average, we receive 15-20 surrender requests every week, and another 6-8 rescue calls every month for pigs that have been dumped by their owners,” she explains.
It’s this overwhelming need that drove Danielle to launch the Arizona non-profit. “Piggies are my passion,” she says. “They are beautiful, smart and understanding creatures that deserve love and respect.” The dedicated volunteers who help care for the rescue’s potbellied residents share her appreciation.
Take Cam, a retired veterinary technician and devoted potbellied pig owner. “Seeing the pigs that come in that were abused or neglected, then being able to help rehabilitate them has been one of the joys of my life,” she says. Without question, pigs like Hope, Ally and Gandalf, who were all found abandoned on the streets, are equally grateful.
“These animals don’t have a voice,” Cam adds, “but at Better Piggies, every pig is treated like family and loved unconditionally.”
Bennie’s Barn Equine Therapy and Riding Facility
It started with two clients and a simple vision – to lend a hand to horses and kids in need. Four years later, Bennie’s Barn has rescued and rehabilitated 30 horses, using these gentle giants to provide more than 200 therapeutic riding lessons each week.
“You cannot describe the feeling it gives you when you see a child who’s been told they’ll never walk take their first steps,” explains Keith Siragusa, a Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship Instructor at the Barn. “Nor can you explain a mother’s reaction when she hears a child speak for the first time.”
Keith credits the horses for these life-changing moments. Many were rescued from auction houses, where they were destined for foreign slaughterhouses. Others come from abused or neglected environments. “We show them trust, love, nourishment, and respect, and then it comes back ten-fold,” Keith emphasizes.
Today, Bennie’s Barn offers 10 different programs, ranging from therapeutic riding instruction, designed to harness the horse’s natural gait to improve physical mobility, to an option that pairs veterans with horses. But regardless of what brings them to Bennie’s Barn, Keith insists every person and every horse is changed for the better. “Bennie’s Barn is love,” he says simply. “It’s the place where miracles happen.”
The H.O.R.S.E. Center, Inc.
There’s a lot you can learn on the back of a horse. Just ask J’Von:
“My horse … loves me just like I am. He is stubborn like me, but he teaches me to be calm, not get mad and to be nice. Buddy taught me to keep trying and not give up on him or on people. Because of Buddy, I am able to love and be loved…. Thank you Buddy.”
J’Von’s not alone in his experiences. Since its founding in 2003, The H.O.R.S.E. Center has helped more than 10,000 children and adults overcome personal challenges, develop problem-solving skills, and achieve individual and group goals through its equine-facilitated approach to therapy.
But why use horses? “Horses are non-judgmental,” explains Russell Porter, the center’s chief financial officer and equine specialist. “They allow clients to have a safe space to work on their resilience, finding serenity and empowerment.” (Not coincidentally, those ideas also form the basis of the center’s acronym: Helping Oneself be Resilient, finding Serenity and Empowerment – H.O.R.S.E.)
During the sessions at Midland, Texas, facility, a three-member team consisting of a licensed mental health professional, an equine professional and a therapy horse concentrate on improving a client’s physical, sensory, emotional, cognitive, and/or psychological deficiencies. Russell says the resulting progress yields ripple effects that can permeate throughout a client’s life.
“Animals offer honest feedback, acceptance and compassion,” he adds, recalling the daily acts of understanding and love that the center’s horses show. “Together, we’re helping our clients be the best person they can be.”
Equest Therapeutic Horsemanship
For nearly four decades, Equest Therapeutic Horsemanship has pioneered its unique brand of therapy and counseling services, pairing thousands of clients with its distinctive therapy partners – horses.
The north Texas non-profit started humbly enough, with just five riders, two horses, one instructor and 10 volunteers. Fast forward to today, and the program now encompasses 30 horses, 10 instructors, three therapists, one counselor and more than 400 volunteers – serving more than 2,000 clients annually.
As one of the largest equine therapy facilities in the country, children and adults with a wide range of physical, cognitive, sensory, coping, social and learning disabilities come through its doors each day. There, they find hope and healing through physical and occupational therapy, equine-facilitated counseling, therapeutic carriage driving and therapeutic horsemanship.
Equest’s mission is straightforward: to enhance the quality of life of children and adults with diverse needs. However, according to Chrissy Rudd, the center’s equine coordinator, it’s not just the clients who benefit from Equest’s magic. “The volunteers and staff also get to take a slice of that healing for themselves,” she explains. “We’re all beneficiaries of our horses’ special touch.”
Leg Up Therapy
For 28 years, Cyndi Hutson put her training and talents as an occupational therapist to work in traditional clinical settings. Then, fate stepped in. As she was helping a friend overcome anxiety following a severe riding accident, Cyndi discovered hippotherapy – therapy with the help of a horse.
Eight years later, Cyndi now serves as the executive director of Leg Up Therapy, where she treats children and adults with physical, mental and emotional problems, incorporating equine movement into her treatment strategy. Patients with chronic disabilities like autism, cerebral palsy and stroke often “burn out” in traditional therapy settings. Cyndi says that with hippotherapy, clients are more engaged in their treatment, helping them accomplish their goals more quickly.
Then there’s the therapeutic benefits of a horse’s natural gait. The horse moves the rider’s hips and pelvis in the same three planes of motion as when a human walks. This repetitive, rhythmic motion helps organize a disorganized nervous system to improve balance, coordination and core stability. Best of all, it makes therapy a lot more fun.
“It warms my heart to see a wheelchair-bound adult experience the freedom of movement on the back of a horse,” Cyndi explains.
But it’s not just the humans who benefit. Leg Up’s team of equine seem to truly love what they do. As evidence, Cyndi points to one of her “senior” horses, a 27-year-old retired ranch mare: “She waits patiently at the gate anytime a child comes on the property, as if she is saying ‘come take me – I want to help you.’”
Looking Ahead with The Wild Hope
Vanessa, founder and director of The Wild Hope in Austin, TX, knows that the most basic interactions with a horse can mean so much. Before she started the equine therapy program to help the survivors of sex trafficking, she did one-on-one mentoring with survivors. One story relates how the act of looking up while leading a horse can help a person who has faced serious trauma feel human again.
Learn more about the programs at The Wild Hope.
Learn how you can help fight sex trafficking.
The Wild Hope
The Wild Hope in Austin, TX, helps the survivors of sex trafficking by facilitating healthy and collaborative relationships with mustangs. Vanessa, the program’s founder, says that mustangs are especially qualified for this type of therapy because the survivors can see shades of themselves in the stories of the horses. Seeing themselves in the horses helps the survivors build a relationship, and that relationship helps them reflect on themselves.
Vanessa says that the interactions that someone has with one of the mustangs prompts a survivor to look inside themselves and try to understand what challenges they are working to overcome.
Learn more about the programs at The Wild Hope.
Learn how you can help fight sex trafficking.
Camelot Therapeutic Ranch
Observe a session at Camelot Therapeutic Ranch and it soon becomes clear, this is not just a pony ride. Against the backdrop of Arizona’s Sonoran Desert, children and adults with physical disabilities build strength, confidence and independence, as they learn to care for and ride the non-profit’s specially trained horses.
It’s a demanding curriculum that covers every facet of horsemanship, including riding, driving, grooming, training, showing, veterinary care, tack maintenance and more. As students learn to care for their horse, they learn to care for themselves. “Independence in the saddle correlates to independence at home,” emphasizes Mary Hadsall, the organization’s executive director.
That singular objective, empowering individuals with physical disabilities, is evident throughout Camelot’s barrier-free, wheelchair-accessible facility. From the mounting ramps to the ADA-accessible horse stalls, it’s possible for students to saddle, ride and groom these horses with minimal help.
“I was once told by a parent that ‘when the child is stuck, the whole family is stuck,’” Mary recalls. “We work alongside each and every rider to help them move forward in their lives.” It’s a philosophy that’s clearly working. Many students who have completed Camelot’s program have gone on to fulfill their goals of higher education and community leadership. Some also choose to return as volunteers, mentoring new students and leading by example.
“The ripple effect of Camelot is so large,” Mary insists. “The confidence and self-worth created here through the magic of equine-assisted activities is making a big different. Simply put, animal therapy works.”
JP and Tiny Tim
Tiny Tim is a special needs miniature horse — his legs are twisted at the knee. It’s a little more difficult for him to walk, but he still makes the rounds as well as any of his peers. When he was found by Kelly King, the executive director at Flames to Hope, she realized that he would need a little bit of extra love. Luckily, the guests at Flames to Hope are more than willing to give him that love.
JP, a young man on the autism spectrum, is one of those guests. He comes out to Flames to Hope with his grandparents often to see Tiny Tim specifically. JP relates more to Tiny Tim than any of the other horses. When asked about their relationship, JP’s grandmother says, “Tiny Tim is special needs himself, so they have kind of a special rapport there.” When you see JP and Tiny Tim together, that rapport becomes very apparent.
Their relationship has been great for JP outside of Flames to Hope as well. His grandparents say that the immediate connection JP formed with Tiny Tim and the other miniature horses has had a calming effect. He seems more relaxed now, and JP’s grandmother attributes it to the unconditional love of Tiny Tim and the other horses. She says, “They don’t care who you are. They don’t care if you’re autistic.” That’s certainly true. Tiny Tim and the other horses are just happy to have another close friend.
Flames to Hope
Flames to Hope started when Kelly King and her husband, Ron, decided to march with their miniature horse, Trigger, in a parade. They had such a great response that they wanted to share Trigger and their other mini horse, Reba, with more people. They decided to start with people who might not normally be able to get out to interact with animals, and brought their two mini horses into a nursing home in Noble, OK.
One of the staff members remarked that it was a perplexing sight to see a horse roaming the halls of their care facility, but the joy that Reba and Trigger brought to the residents was amazing. Kelly says that the horses took right to it, particularly Reba, who would not let a resident walk by without at least giving her a pat on the head. Since then, Flames to Hope has expanded greatly.
Kelly and Ron have sectioned off part of their property to create an on-site facility where people can come out to interact with their horses. They’ve also taken in a lot more horses. Kelly says that the space has become a defacto miniature horse sanctuary, bringing in miniatures that need a home from all around the surrounding area. It’s good that they’ve brought in so many, because the minis have a lot of jobs to do.
Flames to Hope still visits care facilities with their Hope and Honor program, serving more than 80 across Oklahoma, but now they also have room for guests to visit them on site. Their Navigating Life program helps people of all ages who have experienced emotional trauma, have mental disabilities, or struggle with substance abuse. Their Read at Ease program gives kids who struggle with reading a chance to read in a non-judgemental environment to miniature horses. The people and horses at Flames to Hope even offers team-building workshops through their Tactical Teamwork program.
When Trigger first marched in that parade, no one expected any of this to happen, let alone Kelly and Ron. They serve so many people. The miniature horses of Flames to Hope are role models for us to look up to, which is impressive since most of them are barely over three feet tall.
Gwen and Reba
Reba likes getting dressed up. She likes being outside. She likes having stories read to her. Reba is also a miniature horse.
In fact, she’s one of the star miniature horses at Flames to Hope, an equine-assisted therapy program in Noble, OK, which exclusively uses miniature horses to connect with people. They work with people of various challenges, ages, and backgrounds. Reba is heavily involved with Flames to Hope’s Read at Ease program, which allows children who lack confidence while reading the ability to practice in front of mini horses.
One of the kids who reads to Reba regularly is Gwen. She’s been visiting Reba and Flames to Hope for awhile now, and in that time the results have been amazing. Gwen’s mother decided to put Gwen in the Read at Ease program at Flames to Hope in an attempt to boost her daughter’s reading level, acknowledging that the whole idea sounded a little weird at first. And when you look at the process, it can seem a bit out of the ordinary.
When Gwen comes in to visit Reba, she usually puts on a quick fashion show with the mini horse — dressing Reba in different clothing and accessories as a way to loosen up. Then the reading begins, and that’s where the true magic happens. Like Gwen’s mother puts it, her daughter is able to open up with the horse. Gwen can read to Reba, and she can make mistakes while doing it. She doesn’t have to worry about being criticized mid-sentence. It may seem like a strange way to learn on the surface, but the results have been hard to argue with.
Gwen’s reading performance has jumped up four levels in just four months, and her mother has noticed her daughter’s added confidence. Gwen really likes reading now. She even says that it’s fun to come out and read to Reba, and Reba never gets tired of hearing new stories.
Learn more about the programs at Flames to Hope
Horses Offer Refuge to Those in Need
When Patti Mandrell and her husband Randy started Refuge Services in 1999, they weren’t looking to be trailblazers. They simply thought that by bringing their two professional worlds together (she was a licensed counselor; he was a skilled horse trainer) they could harness the healing power of horses. The couple ended up pioneers all the same, becoming the first to run a certified “out-patient” equine-assisted therapy program in Texas.
Twenty years later, their non-profit organization serves more than 160 clients each week, providing a unique therapeutic setting for physical and occupational therapy, as well as mental health counseling. While the majority of their clients are children and teens, the Refuge also offer programs for adults, including veterans.
In particular, Patti calls out the work they’ve done with veterans struggling with traumatic brain injury and post traumatic stress. She says the horse’s rhythmic gait can help start the healing process, helping injured veterans get back on their feet and become productive citizens once more.
Patti admits that horses can be big and intimidating, especially for her youngest clients, but says they can also help heal, strengthen and teach. “These animals have the ability to touch people in a way that sometimes humans cannot,” she explains. For clients with mental health or behavioral issues, the horses provide unconditional friendship and deliver immediate, honest, and observable feedback. For those with physical disabilities, the simple act of riding helps improve flexibility, balance and muscle strength.
As for the horses, they benefit as well. “Our horses love this work, especially all the hugs and the kisses they get from our clients,” Patti says. “They may have retired from their full-time career, but this is an opportunity for them to continue to engage with people.”
In their spare time, Patti and Randy travel around the world, helping others develop similar programs. But the couple relish their time at their Lubbock ranch. “This place is a refuge for people to heal, to find hope, to rediscover themselves, made possible by their interaction with the horses” Patti explains, “For us, it’s such a privilege to be able to walk with people through that journey.”
Jamie’s Ranch: A Special Place for Special People
Everyone needs a place to have fun. That simple statement is the vision behind Jamie’s Ranch, a place where all ages and abilities come to enjoy a day of pony rides, petting zoo animals and a wide variety of other inclusive activities.
Sheri Mitzel remembers the first time she truly understood the need for Jamie’s Ranch. She and her husband Roger hosted an end-of-the-year party for their daughter Jamie’s special-needs classmates and their families. For many of the children, it was the first party they had been invited to attend.
One young girl made a big impression. She desperately wanted to ride a horse but was nearly paralyzed by fear. With patience and encouragement, Roger coaxed the girl onto a horse. “Before it was all over, we couldn’t get her off,” Sheri recalls. A week later, the girl’s teacher called with an update. The young student was applying that same newfound courage to other aspects of her life.
“It was transformational,” Sheri explains, noting that in the ensuing years, she has received many similar calls. “I really believe that animals are an equalizer for these children; they bring some balance back into their life.” Long-time volunteer Francie Anderson agrees: “Animals don’t discriminate. They’re just happy with the attention.”
While the first groups to visit were Jamie’s classmates, Sheri and Roger could see how much the children thrived in the safe, inclusive environment. After their daughter’s death from Batten disease, a rare neurodegenerative disorder, the Mitzels dreamed of bringing the experience to more children. Eight years later, they formally launched Jamie’s Ranch.
“When we were raising Jamie, it was so hard to find different things for her to do – especially activities we could do as an entire family,” Sheri remembers. “I think that’s one of the things we do really well at Jamie’s Ranch. The whole family can come, even older siblings, and they all have fun.”
The Ranch isn’t just for kids. Because Jamie’s Ranch appeals to all ages, Sheri estimates half of their visitors are special-needs adults. “It’s easy to forget as they get older, they still crave new experiences,” she explains, noting that some of their adult guests rarely get to spend time outside. Like the youngsters, these older visitors get great joy riding horses, feeding animals and participating in all the Ranch has to offer.
“It’s just amazing when you see what animals can do,” Sheri concludes. “The impact our animals have is nothing short of miraculous.”
The Animals of Mandy’s Farm
Mandy’s Farm was the first residential program in the United States designed with an emphasis on adult autism. From its inception in 2000, animals were a key component. At the Farm, individuals with developmental disabilities live and work alongside goats, chickens, alpacas, guinea hens, turkeys, cats, dogs and horses.
For clients who don’t communicate verbally, working with horses and other animals can be uniquely rewarding. “They may not be able to speak, but through touch, they can still learn to control this really large animal,” explains Jesse Calero, development director at the Albuquerque, New Mexico organization.
The farm includes a therapeutic riding program, where clients build muscle strength, balance and fine and gross motor skills, while at the same time developing socially and emotionally. “Before their first ride, we really try to ensure that our clients build a relationship with their animals, and that they understand and assist with their care,” Jessie explains. “Only then do we bring on the riding aspect.”
In the beginning, Mandy’s Farm only offered residential services, but today, it’s grown to include day programming and supported-employment services, too. In addition to animal husbandry programs, clients have opportunities to explore visual arts, music, organic gardening and more. But across all its programming, the Farm has a singular goal: to provide clients with an opportunity to set goals and achieve them. “We really design our programs to meet our clients where they are, celebrating their individual skills and strengths, and allowing them to grow at their pace,” Jessie explains. More than just a place to live or learn, Mandy’s Farm strives to create an environment where clients of all abilities can have meaningful, fulfilling lives.
“You don’t need to talk to be able to compete in a goat show, to groom a horse or to get involved with the regular care that animals require,” Jessie emphasizes. “But in doing those things, we’re providing individuals with opportunities to see what they’re capable of, and to also build relationships with these amazing animals.”
Annie and Her Team of Therapeutic Companions
Bringing therapeutic animals to those in need is the goal of Annie’s Therapeutic Companions. The challenge comes in doing that in rural Texas. But as Founder and President, Lyndi Hanna explains, it’s all worth it to provide a service that is often exclusive to larger and more urban demographics.
Annie’s Therapeutic Companions was created and founded based on their namesake, Annie the Australian Shepherd. Lyndi’s passion for training dogs was the root of the concept, but she knew it would take the right dog to make it work. When Lyndi came across Annie, she knew she could finally make this dream a reality. Annie was trained and became certified as a registered Pet Partners therapy animal. Lyndi and Annie began visits to many hospitals, schools, and other care facilities.
As the need for more animal-assisted therapy grew in their rural Texas community, Lyndi decided to form a team of other registered therapy animals. Currently, Annie’s provides services that include therapy dogs and miniature horses, with hopes of expanding their therapy species-base even further.
Lyndi’s passion for her work is far and wide, and with certainty she says it is her ‘calling’. She and Annie have served as spiritual mentors for those in the hospital, companions to doctors who have experienced difficult patient situations, and provided encouraging distraction to children in the ER. They’ve also been an outlet for a special needs child in a school, and often are simply a kind presence to family members during trying times. As Lyndi stated, “It’s been really neat to see how such a simple thing has helped so many people.”
Continued reach is the goal of Annie’s Therapeutic Companions. Currently, the organization sees an average of 2,500 people per month with hopes of expanding their network. A continual balance of donations, fundraising, and grants like Feed It Forward are needed to keep this service flourishing. “I always get something new out of it,” Lyndi says, “We’re always learning something new and seeing what we can do for others, so it’s a big impact.”
The Horses at Camp Cowboy
Camp Cowboy in Kempner, TX, connects its students, veterans and people with emotional trauma, with horses. Working with the horses in Camp Cowboy’s 90-day program gives the students something to help them work through the stress they have in their lives. The program gives them a chance to keep moving and keep doing something productive, taking their minds off of anything else. And they often learn how to handle themselves from learning how to handle the horses.
Kyle and Hercules
Kyle is a student instructor at Camp Cowboy in Kempner, Tx. The program at Camp Cowboy helps people who need to overcome emotional trauma by connecting them with horses. When Kyle started the program at Camp Cowboy, he was readjusting to civilian life after service as a combat marine. He was also coping with a major loss. Working with Hercules changed his life. He opened up to Hercules, and he opened up to the people close to him.
Jeff and Sarge
Jeff started his service to our country as a member of the National Guard. After two and a half years of service, Jeff decided he wanted to do something more. That’s when he joined the Army. He served as a medic over two tours in Afghanistan before being discharged for a back injury.
“As a medic in the Army it’s kind of hard to hold people and all the gear if you’re hurt.”
His back injury wasn’t the only pain he returned home with. Life as a civilian was different to say the least. He wanted to stay away from people. And that made him realize he needed to find an outlet. That’s when Jeff found out about Camp Cowboy. He didn’t know anything about horses going in, but now he gets so much out of them.
“I don’t like civilians and Sarge calms me down, so I can deal with people outside of my family.”
Jeff is now on his third time through the Camp Cowboy program, and he’s working with his third horse, Sarge. He isn’t the easiest horse to work with. Sarge has impaired eyesight. That means Sarge has a little less confidence in his maneuvering. It also means that Jeff has to rely more on his voice and physical cues to help direct Sarge. Jeff thinks that he and Sarge both get a lot of the same out of their time together.
“He gets the same thing I do. A sense of normalcy.”
Jeff has found a place where he can be relaxed, and where the annoyances of civilian life don’t get to him. That’s what makes programs like Camp Cowboy so important to support. And that’s why we support them.
Charles and Hagen
Charles was in the Army for twelve years. The first few years saw him visiting Korea, then Germany, then he was sent to Iraq. He left the Army for a while but said he missed the sense of camaraderie which goes with it, so he signed back up. But when he returned to civilian life again, the sense of camaraderie was still missing. He said that he felt a detachment from society, and from other people, even his son. That’s when he began the program at Camp Cowboy and met Hagen, a horse who had sustained an injury to the left side of his face. Charles and Hagen both had scars, and they found camaraderie in each other.
“We have a connection…We both have pain…and you have to find a way to work through it.”
Hagen has taught him a lot about how to approach life as a civilian. Now Charles is able to slow down. Because of his work with Hagen, Charles can now approach things without having to think about them in the Army mindset which comes naturally to him.
“Instead of trying to beat everything into submission, this program helps you deal with life, with animals, in a more respectful and tolerant way.”
Not only has it helped him think more calmly outside of Camp Cowboy, but he said it’s also made him a better father. When he brings his son to Camp Cowboy, he feels like he’s teaching him valuable life skills which his son won’t find in most other places. Charles thinks that something as simple as cleaning stalls for extra money helps his son connect more with the physical world around him. And being around Hagen has taught Charles more about how to be a father.
“Learning more about myself and how to discipline Hagen has been beneficial in raising my son. It’s taught me — kind of like sandpaper — which rough areas that I need to get rid of.”
Now Charles brings his son out to Camp Cowboy on a regular basis, and he’s learned a little bit more about how he can communicate with him. The experiences with Camp Cowboy have brought more connection into his life. We’re happy to be part of that connection.
Christine and Jade
She used to bite. She used to kick. Jade was one of the more difficult horses at Camp Cowboy, a non-profit in Texas that connects horses with people who have emotional trauma. Their work helps with things like anger, anxiety, even PTSD. Jade had a lot of behavioral problems, which made it hard for students at Camp Cowboy to work with her. But Tony Cole, the director of Camp Cowboy, had a feeling she might be a good fit with Christine.
“There were some real, deep seeded issues in the beginning. Since then Christine started working with Jade. That horse stomped her, and kicked her in the first two weeks.”
-Tony Cole, Director at Camp Cowboy
But, Christine wanted to keep working with Jade. She knew why they were put together. Christine, who was on a bad path in life, even saw a little bit of herself in Jade.
“I come from a very troubled past, and I’ve been in trouble, and I’ve hurt people, and I’ve done wrong things for so long. I was once like Jade. Very mean, pushy, not wanting to do things. And she was very mean. Very, very mean. She stomped on me, she’s kicked me, she has bitten me. I was very afraid of her. There have been times I thought I lost a toe, she stepped on me so hard.”
Despite the difficulty, Christine kept coming back week after week. It was a slow process. It took Christine forty-five days of the ninety-day Camp Cowboy program just to get Jade to listen while in the pen. But eventually Jade started to listen.
“You started seeing both of them getting a little softer and a little softer…The horse was interacting with other horses, the horse was calmer in the stall, it ate better…[Christine] started laughing and interacting.”
-Tony Cole, Director at Camp Cowboy
After the weeks of hard work, things started to turn around. Christine started to get Jade to open up, while opening up herself. Jade was becoming more peaceful, and Christine is proud to be the one who made that turn with Jade.
“I was able to put my kids on her…because she was so calm and docile. I did that. That is what I did.”
For Christine, Jade has helped her work through anxiety, and trauma. For Jade, Christine has served the same role. They’re both happier now. They’re both more trusting of people. And they’re both working one ride at a time to continue getting better. That bond is the reason Feed It Forward is happy to support organizations like Camp Cowboy.