Mid-November 2015, my family and I moved to Austin, TX from Baltimore, MD. Myself, my husband and our 2-year-old son, Rory. My daughter was still baking but she made her arrival as an official Texan just three weeks later. Soon after McKenna was born, “Small-amore” (a nickname for Baltimore because no matter how big it gets, everyone knows everyone like a small town) showed up on our street. As it turned out, a fellow alum from my husband’s high school back in Maryland ended up living on the very same street as us. Josh JonesDilworth, CEO & Founder of Jones-Dilworth, Inc. (JDI), was hosting a regional alumni event for McDonogh High School graduates. Around that time, Josh extended an off er of desk space at JDI’s offices to Brad while we became adjusted to the area. To this day, we are still so grateful for Josh, and that offer was the gift that kept on giving. Though it was seemingly meant only for our adjustment period, Brad still works out of there when he can.
My husband quickly settled in and made friends with folks from the office and got to know some of the JDI team personally. I met many of the officemates, as well, since I would try to do something for the office every month. Sometimes I made lunch, and sometimes I would host a happy hour & dinner as a thank you to the Jones-Dilworth family for what they had done for us. One person we met was Alexa Ball, some of you reading this may know her as an HHR instructor. Right from the moment you meet Alexa, you realize she is young, fun, tenacious and a salt-of-the-earth lover of horses! Once summer rolled around, Alexa happened to invite us to the “Barn Bash” event since she was doing volunteer work at HHR at the same. She had explained to us that Healing with Horses offered therapeutic equine-assisted riding and, being that this event was a fundraiser, we wanted to support the ranch. Not only did we go, but we took the kids as well. Music, food, wine, plus horses. What wasn’t to love?! Rory was scared but intrigued by the horses, specifically Coolman at the time. Mckenna, as we learned, was totally uninhibited to pet or touch any of the animals- horses, donkeys and dogs alike (a trait she still shows off today). We enjoyed all of this fun & philanthropy while being utterly unaware of the fact that the Ranch would soon become an imperative resource for us to utilize.
At the time of our first Barn Bash, McKenna was an 8-month-old perfect yummy baby, developing quite beautifully. Rory was almost 3 years old, cute and handsome as ever. He didn’t have much language, but did have a majority of main gross motor skills that one would expect at that age. We were not overly alarmed by his lack of speech or particularly concerned that something might be profoundly “wrong” because our doubt was soothed by the presumption that he was a “late talker”.
Not long after the Barn Bash, we had Rory assessed for a speech delay, unaware of how severe his delay really was. We received a diagnosis of Severe Expressive & Receptive Speech Delay and immediately placed him in private therapy. Therapy was starting to help, but around the same time, Rory began showing sensory seeking behaviors. It was becoming apparent that what we were led to believe was speech delay was actually something else. My husband began pressing his belief that Rory was autistic. To be honest, I was in denial and slow to be receptive to the reality of it. At the very least, I was open to considering that he had a Sensory Processing Disorder. A few months into speech therapy, I reached out to Alexa about getting Rory into riding lessons and she immediately put me in touch with Patty. Based on what I was able to gauge about Rory’s input needs and some research I read suggesting that horseback riding was theorized to stimulate speech, I became a mom on a mission.
On March 16th, 2016, Rory fully began his journey at the Ranch. The official diagnosis of Autism from his Pediatric Neurologist rolled in not long after. Outside of grief, my devotion to my son took over. I knew Rory had a fear about animals in general, as he exhibited at the Barn Bash, but I also knew he could “exist” with them. What we found, and what Patty was immediately able to gauge, was that we needed to start with baby steps. This wasn’t going to be easy, but there were steps we could to take. Even though she didn’t know Rory personally yet, I followed Patty’s lead because I trusted her visit ability and knowledge and my gut told me this was what it was going to take.
With nothing to lose and everything to gain, we started slowly. First, Patty had Rory the ranch three times before his official lesson to orient him. His first lesson was just focusing on getting him to wear a helmet. That left us with homework. We had to have him practice wearing a helmet at home. Our neighbors were confused, but we knew that he had to persevere through what most would believe to be a menial task. Something as simple as wearing a helmet can be tough for a someone on the spectrum, but you must know when to push through the protest and how to gauge the demands. The next lesson focused on sitting on a practice horse while wearing a helmet (and by practice, I mean fake…). His next lesson involved grooming Oreo, the miniature horse, and he handled that okay, eventually. The following lesson, which Patty had groomed me for, was getting Rory on a horse. It was difficult to watch, but I had been experiencing his separation anxiety fits since he was 6 months old. The hard part for me was learning to trust someone new to handle him, especially with all the new variables in our life. Bonnie was the first horse he ever rode at the Ranch. Just in the arena, Bonnie began to move with him and his crying fits lessened each time. To this day, Rory’s separation anxiety is an ongoing concern, but it has been significantly cut down after 2 years of an aggressive and strategic combination of therapies. Truthfully, I attribute the decrease in separation on anxiety to his equine therapy and his behavioral therapy (also known as ABA). At one point both therapies were happening simultaneously at the ranch. Rory has had and still does have bursts of language during or after his lessons. In this two-year-long journey, we have had to increase demands, expect more and request more of Rory, but we also sometimes have to lower the requests. It requires constant managing, but it’s a joint effort and a collaboration. Regardless of any gains we see in language or behavior, what speaks louder than words is Rory’s connection to the horses themselves. His confidence when he is around the horses, the instructors, and the volunteers, and even how he relates to myself or my husband at the ranch or away from it indicates there is magic at work.
McKenna, Rory’s 3-year-old little sister, began riding at HHR this year to support Rory. Along with being his best friend, she is his biggest cheerleader and supporter in all of his therapies, at home and away from home. There was also no denying her own personal craving to ride. Her horse obsession is real. It’s rare to be able to have your kids in the same activities when one child has special needs and the other does not. At first, we had guarded optimism about how a group riding lesson with both kids would go. Happy to say that we and everyone at HHR were right to be optimistic. With McKenna, they are grooming a future volunteer + therapist!
Rory is partially verbal now and continues to make gains on all other platforms. The benefits from the services we receive from the Ranch are beyond what we could have ever imagined. And awed by Rory’s gains, I have begun riding as well! Being Rory’s mom, I have an acute knowledge of where this makes a difference for him. It can be hard to measure the benefits on paper, but therapeutic riding fills in the gaps where other therapy can’t fit. It provides so many unspoken skills and there is no denying the amount of confidence he now has because of riding. No matter what Rory will endure in his lifetime, whether he is fully independent or not, he will always have the confidence to direct and be with a thousand-pound creature. This talent will always be a resource of peace, healing and support for Rory, forever. Every super hero needs that!
Perspectives on Life and Art - My heart is feeling grateful and full. It never ceases to amaze me when a small group of passionate people band together and make big things happen. On Oct 19th, we had our Barn Bash. First of all, I would like to thank our Barn Bash Committee. Ariana Roman, Chris Baker, John D’Andrea, Kelly Ellis, Cari Weiss, and Davina Merkel spent months planning, asking, preparing, advertising, and hosting our 4th annual Barn Bash. It was held at the beautiful Chateau Bellevue in Austin, where a dinner of braised chicken, steak, green beans, and roasted potatoes was served. The chocolate mousse was to die for, and I am sorry if you missed it!
John welcomed everyone and invited everyone to eat while he shared his story, including how he needed to be at the Ranch if he ever wanted to see me! He shared how his understanding of equine therapy worked and his perspective on the practice was forever changed by volunteering with one of his favorite participants.
Our keynote speaker, Alexa Nichols, asked everyone to help us by bidding big on the auction items, but more importantly, she shared her story about her accident and how her perspective in life had changed since her accident, but she would not give up! And then she sang “Over the Rainbow”, and it was beautiful and sweet.
And then the auction began! Howard Chase donated his time and talent, as well as the golf packages, and made the night both fun and profitable! Over $17,000 in in-kind donations and over $18,000 in cash was raised! He ended the evening by “selling” shares for the purchase of a Big Ass Fan, raising an additional $6,000. This will be a game changer next summer- we will no longer have to cancel or reschedule lessons because of the heat! By the way, it’s not too late to buy shares to join the Big Ass Fan Club. Just go to paypal and pay a friend (firstname.lastname@example.org), make a note of how many shares that you would like to “purchase” at $50/share. Your name will go on a small plaque in the arena as a member of the “Big Ass Fan Club”!
I want to end by thanking all of our Barn Bash Sponsors! Blue Cross Blue Shield Texas, Kohls of Round Rock and Kohls of Kyle, BlueBonnet Electric, Jane MacElree, Sugar & Dude, Joy Hart Realty, Ruby Porter, Kathy McKee, Merlot Enterprises, Sonia Martinez, HEB, Lauren Mikols, Kane Consulting, Stacey Soule, Shar Barnette, and Joan Calman. We so appreciate your support! And thank you to all of our supporters that made in-kind donations! Amy’s Ice Cream, BreWingZ, Sea Island Shrimp House, El Fenix, Maudie’s Tex-Mex, Juiceland, Kick Butt Coffee Café, Pappas Restaurants, Chuy’s, Rosa’s Cafe, Fairmont Austin, Omni Dallas Hotel, Omni Austin Hotel Downtown, Historic Taos Inn, Margaritaville Resort Casino, Elite Island Resorts, Doggy Day Out, Panic Room, Round Rock Express, SeaWorld San Antonio, Ski Taos, Sonoma Canopy Tours, Baylor University Basketball, Dripping Springs Distillery, Edge Addicts, Greg Johnson and Lowe’s, Master Gohring’s Tai Chi & Kung Fu, Medieval Times, Morgan’s Wonderland, Paramount or Stateside Theatres, River Place, Lisa Foight, Ghost Paper Glass, Russell Korman Fine Jewelry, Sage Recovery, San Antonio Spurs Sports and Entertainment, Twin Creeks, Target, Speed Zone, Hahn family Wine, the Lagunitas Brewing Company, Ben E. Keith Company-Beverage Division, Real Ale, Brown Distributing Company, Lewis Wines, Tito’s Vodka, Greta Olivas, JULIE PELAEZ STUDIOS, James Pricer, Gina Butler, Carol Hagen of Lily4carol Elyse Greenberg, Dave Hagen, Shefali O’Hara, Benjamin Knox Gallery, Jennifer Aaron, Kevin & Tanya Wymer, Kathy McKee, Sherri Ray, Tina Broussard, and any that I may have missed, you rock! To all that attended, it was fun seeing you and I sure hope that you had a great time!
We want to thank Tim Ray for spreading the word about Healing with Horses Ranch this year on his race car. Tim was the first president of our board and an avid supporter. He competes with the National Auto Sport Association Texas Region and ran at this year's NASA national event.
Yes.... that is Healing with Horses Ranch at the Circuit of the Americans. How cool is that!!!!!
An update and a request to support Healing with Horses Ranch.
This has been a tremendous year!
Client, volunteer, and staff (both horse and human) hours are at an all-time high. For the first time HHR has a waiting list! Here are just a few of our stats:
We partnered with two residential rehabilitation centers providing Equine Assisted Psychotherapy to their clients.
Facility improvements continued installing more than 1500 feet of permanent fencing; arena, stall, and parking lot lighting; and 17 permanent horse stalls (in progress)
We are now one of ~100 worldwide Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH Intl) Premier Centers. This level certification highlights our exceptional focus on safety, quality, and customer care.
The challenge is....
Our mission is to provide affordable equine therapies to our clients. Although we charge for our services, our fees cover less than half our cost.
I often joke that “horses eat like horses!” To put this in perspective, we will use more than $14,000 worth of hay, $5000 feed, and $21,000 in farrier and veterinary services this year.
In addition, we internal fund a financial hardship “scholarship” program. This year 60+% of our clients participated and we already funded more than $50,000 in scholarships to date.
Did I mention our instructor and mental health professionals get paid (barely) and we need more…..
Now for the part I find the hardest – asking for money. Here is my humble request.
Please attend and/or sponsor our annual Barn Bash fundraiser - October 19th at Chateau Bellevue in downtown Austin. Your purchase includes dinner, open bar, HHR drink glass, keynote speaker, door prize raffle, and access to our 60+ item live auction. (Information and purchase here)
Please consider making a donation - if you cannot attend. Does your company have a donation matching program? Even a few dollars weekly matched by your company goes a long way to keeping our horses feed and our riders in their saddles! (Donate here)
Note: all sponsorships and donations are tax deductible.
Thank you so much for your support.
I am not sure where to begin as I sit at the Region 8 PATH Intl conference with two of our instructors, Libby and Cameron, our mental health counselor, Hadley, and our instructor-in-training, Lauren. This comes literally three days after our site visit from PATH Intl., as we strive to become a premier PATH center. I am not sure that I am at liberty to share, but I am sharing anyway. Two PATH representatives came to determine if Healing with Horses Ranch and our satellite center at SAGE have policies and procedures that fulfill the 115 standards that PATH centers follow.
I am pleased to say that because of the dedication of our staff and volunteers, we scored a 98 at SAGE and a 99 at the ranch. I think that we passed! This is a huge accomplishment. In 2016, there were 882 member centers, of which only 272 were premier centers. This new premier status shows a level of dedication to the safety and effectiveness of our center, gives us access to grants that were not available to us without this accreditation, and allows us to host PATH Intl. workshops and certifications here at the ranch.
Healing with Horses Ranch is currently a center member of PATH Intl (the Professional Association for Therapeutic Horsemanship, International). We are striving to become a Premiere PATH Intl member. On July 31st, two site visitors will inspect the ranch to ensure we are adhering to the 100+ PATH Intl standards. We became a PATH Intl member in 2011 because of these standards or best practices. The PATH Intl standards gave us a roadmap to follow as we were developing our policies and our business in general. They are broken down into four categories: mandatory, core, activity, and service.
Twenty-three standards are mandatory, meaning that if we do not adhere to even one those standards and all of their sub-parts, we will automatically fail the accreditation process
The Core Standards compose the vast majority. They cover Business and Administration, Facility Management, and Equine Welfare; everything from written proof of business formation (we are a 501(c)(3) business), to participant and volunteer information that should be kept in the business office or at the activity site, to how we accept and care for horses.
The Activity Standards ensure that there are policies in place that account for the interaction between the participant and horses. We must address the Mounted and Ground Standards, but do not have to follow the Driving and Vaulting Standards because we do not have an Interactive Vaulting program or Driving Program. Our instructors are certified by PATH Intl. We have safety policies about equipment checks and safety stirrups, and the wearing of ASTE-SEI approved helmets.
The Service Standards cover the Equestrian Skills and the Medical/Mental Health Standards. They are concerned with the goals of the participants, whether under the tutelage of a PATH Intl instructor, or a medical professional such as a mental health counselor, physical therapist, or speech pathologist.
How can you help and how does this impact you?
It’s already so hot and it looks like this year is predicted to be hotter than normal! But the arena is doing its job! It is easily 10 degrees cooler in the arena than outside of the arena! Just a reminder to our volunteers and riders that the summer schedule starts on June 1st. Lessons will start at 8am and go until 12:45pm and then after our siesta (hahaha), we will continue lessons starting at 5:30pm until 8:15pm. Thank you everyone for your flexibility in making this change. If you haven’t scheduled your session time, please contact me or your instructor!
It’s a puzzle of intricate and ever changing pieces. As we near summer months, we contemplate schedule changes. We start with the edge pieces as we schedule 6 instructors and 75 participants. It is no easy feat as we try to make everyone happy. There are so many close fits!
Then, Cari has the task of finding the pieces of the puzzle that are all the same color and fitting them all into the right spots. In one week we need at least 125 volunteers committing to 2 hours. Some of our volunteers give more than 2 hours of their time and talent. They get sitters for their children, leave their pets at home, rush to the ranch after putting in 8 or more hours at their paying job, drive sometimes up to 45 minutes and spend countless dollars for gas to come out to mentor our participants. Sometimes they get sick or have to work late unexpectedly and Cari scrambles to fit pieces in that she thought she already had in place, emailing and calling countless volunteers!
Davina has the fun job of pulling all of the puzzle pieces with all of the words or lines as she texts reminders to every participant the evening before their lesson verifying that they will be here for their lessons, responding to their questions, and giving support when needed.
Our instructors and therapist get to put the last piece of the puzzle. They spend time researching lesson ideas, create goals and objectives for each lesson, arrive at least 30 minutes before their scheduled lesson to assign horses, check tack, setup the arena, brief volunteers on what the needs of the lesson might be, and coach newer volunteers. They are the risk manager for each lesson that they are responsible for. After every session, they write up the evaluation of each participants’ performance.
This beautiful puzzle of a horse partnering with and giving strength to it’s human while teaching confidence and communication is one of those 1000 piece puzzles that takes hours, days, weeks to put together. So as we work together to put this puzzle together, I ask our volunteers to understand the difficulties and challenges and sacrifices that our families go through to get their family members out to the ranch to help them heal..., body, mind, and soul. I also ask our participants and their guardians to respect our volunteers, instructors, and support staff’s time and efforts by coming to their scheduled lesson at their scheduled time. Their is nothing more disheartening than to rush from work or home only to find out that your rider canceled at the last minute or worse yet just doesn’t show up.
Mud! I hate mud! So many of you have heard me say how much I hate mud! And then the rain came! I hate mud! There really is a reason for my obsession over no mud. Did you know that we are in the process of becoming a premier PATH Intl center? Separated into 5 categories; Business and Administrative Standards, Facility Standards, Equine Welfare and Management Standards, Activity Standards, and Service Standards. For each standard we have a policy and procedure that has been thought out, tried, written down, and followed! What does this have to do with me hating mud? One of the 42 Facility Standards is: Is the walking surface in the stable area maintained so that it is dry, even and easily traversed? So, please help me! Any time you hose off or bathe horses or clean a feed pan or water bucket or trough think about where we need to walk (in front of the stalls, by the gates, the pathway from the driveway to the stalls, …) and then avoid that area.