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Healing Through Horses

Innovative equine programs restore minds, bodies and spirits

Photo: Dariush Shafa
Photo: Dariush Shafa
Photo: Carolyn Schottel
Photo: Thom Shelby

Susan Nance always loved riding horses and at one time even worked as a mare midwife on a breeding farm.

Though she lost her vision in the mid 1990s, the Henderson native’s love of horses didn’t wane and she continued riding horses in Texas, where she lived with her husband before he passed away.

“For me, it’s just a huge sanity thing,” she says.

But when she moved back to Henderson, Nance grew discouraged when, despite her experience, some stables were hesitant to accommodate a blind rider. That is, until 2008 when she contacted Blue Moon Stables, an operation in Corydon, owned by Chad and Stacy Denton. 

“(Stacy) was a little reluctant at first,” Nance says. “You can imagine the astonishment at someone who says, ‘I’m totally blind and I’d like to ride.’”

Hooves of Hope Director/Founder Blair Newsome with participant Macy Maynard. Photo: Hooves of Hope staff.

Sir Dorset, a retired racehorse with a trustworthy temperament, was found for Nance, who rode him until his 2012 passing. She was unable to ride regularly until Blue Moon acquired another horse who was a good match in 2015. Nance was thrilled to be invited back to ride. 

By then, Blue Moon was transitioning into a nonprofit therapeutic riding program called Healing Reins in partnership with Rolling Hills Equestrian Center in Henderson to serve people with a variety of physical and mental challenges. 

Healing Reins Therapeutic Riding Program Director Monica Fella says trained instructors and volunteers assist participants in weekly sessions for a six-week period, tailored to their needs and abilities. Fifteen horses are involved, and activities can include grooming, saddling and riding a horse, and leading it through obstacles designed to build participants’ strength, balance, confidence and coordination.

The $25 sessions are offered at a discount or through sponsorships made possible by fundraisers, grants and donations, she says.

Nance guides Barkley through a series of walking and trotting maneuvers on the barn track at Blue Moon Stables. Photo: Dariush Shafa

Like Nance, some participants are visually impaired, while others have conditions like Down syndrome, cerebral palsy or autism. There also is a free program to help military veterans who are coping with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“They get up on a horse and they smile and laugh and they hug the horse,” Fella says. “It’s just incredible to see them escape their condition for a while, escape their limitation, because they’re told that they can’t do things over and over and over. At Healing Reins that’s not what we look at; we look at what they can do—and they can do a lot, no matter what the challenge is or the special need is.”

These days, Nance enjoys weekly horseback rides.

“I was just over the moon when I started riding again (with Healing Reins),” she says.

Riding for mind and body

On a 575-acre farm in Versailles, Life Adventure Center has an indoor arena with obstacles for riders and their horses to navigate during equine assisted learning and equine assisted psychotherapy sessions. 

There are programs for veterans, at-risk youth and those in trauma recovery, Executive Director Tim Magill says. The center also offers vaulting, a form of gymnastics on horseback.

Program services come free or at reduced cost through grants, fundraising and donations.

Sophia Newton is one of the young riders at The REATH Center in Campbellsville. Once afraid of all animals, she now loves grooming and riding horses many times her size. Photo: Marchetta Garrison

About 17 horses have been tapped for the program, with instructors aiding about 800 people annually. Focusing largely on trauma recovery for youth, equine assisted psychotherapy sessions are usually provided in a group setting, Magill says, typically with six to 15 participants accompanied by psychologists and social workers.

Through these sessions, participants learn about resilience, emotional self-regulation and overcoming triggers. Equine assisted learning programs also cultivate leadership and communication skills.

“Everything that we do here has a very positive effect,” Magill says. 

Veterans saddle up

U.S. Army veteran Jeremy Harrell founded Veteran’s Club in late 2017 to offer Kentucky veterans opportunities for camaraderie through scheduled social events. That same year he experienced equine therapy after overcoming a few misgivings and skepticism.

By the end of his first session, he says he not only felt renewed but convinced: “I knew that if it could do that for me, give me that sense of peace and contentment, that it could do that for other veterans.”

Harrell partnered with Shelbyville horse ranch The Dizzy D to get the program up and running.

Now, he enjoys watching other vets go through a similar process when trying something unfamiliar.

“I’ve had a lot of veterans tell me, ‘I don’t want to have anything to do with these horses’…when they leave they’re kissing the horses goodbye,” he says.

Kentucky Foothills Therapeutic Horsemanship Center in Richmond provides therapeutic riding and equine assisted learning programs for special needs children and adults, students and veterans.

Founder and Board President Mark Martin says the center is developing a new drill team and honor guard primarily for veterans that is expected to launch next year. Training of horses and riders is underway. He says the regimented movements and focus required are familiar to veterans.

“In a way we’re trying to form kind of a camaraderie like what the veterans feel when they’re in the service, and they lack when they’re discharged,” he says. “We’re trying to form an extended family, a community of veterans.”

Hooves of Hope participant Macy Maynard is assisted in a session by Assistant Barn Manager Pam Tiemeyer. Photo: Hooves of Hope staff

Hooves of Hope in Lancaster, founded in 2006 to offer therapeutic riding and carriage driving programs, has added Operation Hope for veterans. Operation Hope and its new equine assisted learning program for at-risk youth are both free, says Program Director Laura Friday.

In its therapeutic programs, the organization pairs a mental health provider and equine specialist to help participants with anxiety, autism, PTSD or physical challenges like spina bifida. Riders range in age from 4 to 70-plus and usually come from within an hour’s drive.

Therapeutic animals include 12 horses and one donkey. A horse’s natural gait is similar to that of a walking human, Friday explains, helping those with autism instinctively relax and focus, and imparting a sense of peacefulness to those with anxiety, depression or in trauma recovery.

Personal connection spurs program

Marchetta and Sammy Garrison’s love for their daughter Sabrina led them to enroll her in a therapeutic riding program. Sabrina was born with hydrocephalus and mild cerebral palsy in 1999. When she was 3, the Garrisons began making the 92-mile trip from Campbellsville to Shelbyville, where Sabrina rode horses as therapy for two years.

“It was like when we first went through that gate, I don’t know how to explain it, it was like God said, ‘This is what you’re supposed to do,’” Marchetta says.

In 2007, the couple opened The REATH (Riding Enhanced Around Therapeutic Horses) Center in Campbellsville, a nonprofit that has grown to include a youth summer camp and therapeutic riding programs for all ages in an outdoor arena.

Sabrina, now a college junior, is hoping to become certified to lead therapeutic riding sessions, says her mother, who already holds that certification.

Five-year-old Sophia Newton of Campbellsville is in her third season of riding at the center. Her mother, Jenny Newton, says Sophia was born with cerebral palsy and can’t walk and has low muscle tone. 

“The first time she got on a horse she couldn’t even sit up, her voice wasn’t loud; we just thought that was her demeanor,” Jenny says. “… By the first season, by the end of her riding she was shouting across the arena!”

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