Equine therapy? I’d never heard of it when my attention was caught by a TV news broadcast last year on a group called Horses With a Mission. But I watched with great interest and thought, “What a cool idea. And that would make a great article. . . ” Months went by and while I never forgot that news feature, eventually deciding that HWAM would make a great entry in my monthly blog series, it took me a while to drive over for a personal visit to Bolaine Ranch and a chat with its founders, Bo and Elaine Barton, and a few of their volunteers. . .but I finally did last week. . .
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“Well, we trail rode for years and years and had horses and everything, and one day we woke up and Elaine said, ‘God told me I was supposed to help kids with our horses. And I said, oh crap. And that’s where it all started.”
So Bo Barton, vice president of Horses With a Mission, explained the founding of the program in Groveland, Florida whose purpose is “To foster the physical, psychological and social well-being of individuals with special needs and disabilities through positive interactions with horses.” As their flyer continues, “The organization believes that persons suffering with psychological or behavioral issues will benefit by making personal contact with horses in an organized, supervised, safe manner.”
I was intrigued by the concept, and wanted to know more.
“How long has the ranch been in operation?” was one of my first questions, but I never expected Elaine Barton’s answer to reveal a sequence of events that left me marveling, “It sounds like it was just meant to be!”
“We’ve been here about two years,” Elaine told me while she waited for a student. “We started the process in 2010, but it took us almost a year just to get our non-profit set up. Then, in 2011, we actually started taking clients, but we weren’t here. The county wouldn’t let me be here because I didn’t have ten acres. So I went to another ranch maybe 20 minutes from here. That meant I had to load and carry my horse three days a week, drive him over there, take him out of the trailer, put him back in the trailer. . .so after about the first season, we decided that wasn’t going to work. It was tough on the horses and us. At the beginning of 2011, we started the process of trying to get here. I went to the county when we first started the program and asked them if we could do it here and they said, ‘No, you don’t have ten acres and it would never pass,’ so I just had that mindset of, okay, it’s not going to happen, and then one day our pastor was speaking in church about how if you don’t step out in faith, it’s never going to get done. I felt like he was talking straight to me.”
From what came next, I had to agree.
“So I went back to the county and said, ‘You know what? I want to put the application in anyway. I’m just going to go for it.’ And they said, ‘Well, the staff’s not going to recommend you, so it’s probably not going to happen.’ I said, ‘I don’t care; I’m just going to do it anyway.’ It was $800 and non-refundable. I got on the docket to go to the County Commissioners meeting, and the staff did not recommend us—they stand up in front of the Board and they say, ‘We do not recommend this happening; she doesn’t have enough room, blah-blah-blah. . .’ Then I got to speak, and I got to tell them what we do and why we do it, show them some of the kids on the horses, pictures and that kind of stuff, and it went through unanimously.”
Score one for faith! But what was up with that ten-acre rule?
“In order to have any kind of riding program that’s commercialized, it has to be ten acres,” Elaine explained. “I don’t understand that because my horses have lived on five acres for 17 years.”
I didn’t get it either, but the story wasn’t over yet.
“The next step was that I had to get the conditional use permit,” she went on. “That was to be able to do what I wanted to do on the property. That took another probably four or five months and another, I think it was, $800 or $1200. Then it was the road issue. We found out through this whole process that the road we drive on doesn’t really belong to us; it belongs to the guy across the street, so for the last 17 years we’ve been driving on a road that’s not even ours. I had to go to him and get him to sign a waiver saying that he would give us right-of-way. At first he didn’t want to because he was building a church and he didn’t want anything to hinder the process.”
Intervention came in the form of a little girl with impaired vision. . .or rather, her mother, who overheard a conversation Elaine was having in which she mentioned the possibility that the ranch might soon have to close.
“She said, ‘What?! She’s got to ride, this is the best thing she has all week!’ I said, ‘Well, this is the situation.’ She said, ‘My mother knows him very well; I’m going to call her as soon as I get home.'”
The call was made and the papers were signed in short order, Elaine took them to the county, and, “Supposedly now, we’re all legal.”
Which is a good thing indeed for the 60 students, both children and adult, who benefit from riding at the ranch.
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“But how does it work?” was my main question about equine therapy. In answer, Elaine gave me this quote from Spirit Horse Therapeutic Center in Corinth, Texas, the program from which she and Bo received their training and certification.
“We believe horses and ponies have an accessible spirit. . . They have an advantage over humans in that they don’t have ego to get in the way of their relationships. We also believe that children with disabilities have very accessible and beautiful spirits. . .this spiritual connection is what makes this intervention work.”
And on a physical level:
“The movement of the horse or pony stimulates the rider’s vestibular system (inner ear), which not only controls balance but all voluntary movement of the body, including speech. . . (S)tudents who are under-stimulated become more active vocally and [in] body movement. Riders also learn vital skills [such as] following instructions, focusing, task-sequence participation and self-confidence.”
This last was echoed by a young couple, Joey and Zaida, whom I met at the ranch while their son was taking a lesson. He’s been coming to the ranch for about a year now and his parents had moved to the Orlando area “to get more answers” about his challenges.
“The real difference that I see is the interaction—he’s more confident,” Zaida said. “He has a lot of problems with speech. The very first day that he took the therapy, the teacher said, ‘He’s different.'” When Zaida told her about Bolaine Ranch, “the teacher said, ‘You know what? I saw a difference right away.’
“I was amazed and I was so happy. So happy. It’s so incredible that I drive an hour” [from her home, for lessons].
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Horses With a Mission is a small outfit accomplishing some very big things for people with physical and mental challenges of all types, from Zaida’s son to a girl with the rare congenital condition Charge Syndrome. . .so afraid of all animals that she wouldn’t allow even a stuffed one near her, yet who now—at age two and a half—hardly seems happier than when she’s on the back of a horse.
“We have had so many obstacles, and every obstacle has been blessed and overcome,” Elaine told me. “And then, with the economy, it was hard to get people to donate, but when we need the money. . .I mean, we do not have funds. But when we need the funds, they seem to come through.” (The program charges $20 per session; most similar therapy sessions run much higher.) “And that’s mostly just to help with the feed and the upkeep and such. Our goal is to become self-supporting to where we don’t have to charge.”
As I drove away, I hoped with them that such a day would come soon.
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To find out more about Horses With a Mission and help them continue their good work, check out their website, email them at email@example.com, or stop by Bolaine Ranch at 13820 Gadson Street, Groveland, FL 34736. The ranch also operates a thrift shop, the proceeds from which go towards child scholarships and care for the horses.
Just tell ’em Lucie sent you.