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The healing power of horses
New facility offers equine and art therapy for special needs, PTSD and more
Sidewalker Lynn Thompson leads 11 year-old Kaleigh on a ride with Tom Sawyer, an Aztec pony that provides equine therapy.

Hoofs 4 Healing Grand Opening

When: 11am-5pm Saturday, Jan. 18

Where: 1514B Old Dean Forest Rd., Garden City

Cost: Free


New facility offers equine and art therapy for special needs, PTSD and more

Carol is a big horse. A very big horse.

Tall and muscular with a dark brown pelt that hints of red in the sunlight, the Holsteiner stallion looks like he could trample through the gate and chase down the 18-wheeler trucks speeding down the interstate visible just across the pasture.

But appearances can be deceiving.

For all of his brawn, Carol is as gentle as they come. As a trained therapy animal, his most startling action is to amble to the fence and nose hopefully for a carrot.

"When it comes to therapeutic riding, it's not the size of the horse, it's their mind," explains Karrie Henry, founder of Hoofs 4 Healing, a new therapeutic horseback riding facility just off I-16 in Garden City.

Also known as equine therapy, therapeutic riding has been shown to provide benefit for a host of conditions, including autism, cerebral palsy, Down Syndrome and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Henry says horses like Carol help clients with physical limitations build core strength and balance with the assistance of a custom-built loading ramp and "sidewalkers" who protect from falls. Those that have experienced psychological trauma find unique comfort in relating to these placid giants. Children who have trouble making eye contact with their parents often demonstrate rarely-glimpsed affection after working with horses.

Jennifer Whited was nervous to let her son, Anthony, try equine therapy three years ago, but changed her mind when she saw how quickly he connected with the graceful animals.

Diagnosed with autism at four, Anthony had been through a variety of therapies, and being on a horse remains the most joyful. Now 13, Anthony participated in the State Horse Show at the Special Olympics in 2012.

"He wants so much to be independent, and this gives him that sense," says Whited. "The horses never judge him."

Even those with severe physical challenges can participate, though it is not necessary to ride to receive the soothing effects of therapy: Simply grooming the horse can provide relaxation and improved range of motion. Still, what her clients are capable of can be surprising.

"I've seen it change a person's whole world," confirms Henry, who recounts how her 20 year-old nephew, Thomas, born with cerebral palsy, has been riding for 15 years.

A fifth-generation horsewoman who owned her first pony at 3, Henry spent her childhood jumping the course and showing horses at Say-Hi Stables, razed in the '90s to make way to develop the Southbridge neighborhood. Horses were where she found confidence and happiness, away from the difficulties of school. When she was diagnosed with dyslexia in second grade, she realized that her skill with horses could be a path to help others.

"Even back then, I had the vision of teaching special individuals," she remembers.

Certified by the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH Intl.), Henry worked with Bloomingdale-based equine therapy facility Horsin' Around for 10 years before realizing her vision for Hoofs 4 Healing. To provide another element of therapy for her clients, she has brought on artist and special needs art teacher Becca Marcussen to offer painting, mosaic and sculpture classes. The non-profit officially opens its corral with an all-day grand opening celebration featuring art, music, food and fun this Saturday, Jan. 18.

Located 10 minutes from downtown Savannah, the riding facility sits on 45 acres of a former rice plantation that had fallen into neglect by its last tenants. To ready it for horses and people alike, Henry enlisted help from all corners of the community: Students from St. Vincent's and Savanah Country Day participated in clean up days, and Habitat for Humanity helped repair the dilapidated barn and outbuildings. Dan J. Sheehan Co. provided some surplus paint to cover everything in a cheerful blue, and a troop of Eagle Scouts is on the way to finish the ADA-approved restrooms and wheelchair ramp.

"It's been amazing how many people have showed up to help," Henry marvels. "I'm so grateful."

Along with the dark and handsome Carol, Henry has amassed two other permanent therapy horses: Tom Sawyer, a tan Aztec pony with a twinkle in his eye, and Montana, a kind Kiger Mustang mare with a buckskin pelt and black legs. Others will be borrowed from members of the close-knit local horse community as needed.

In addition to serving the special needs community, Henry hopes to offer Hoofs 4 Healing to active and veteran military personnel for free. That means keeping the coffers full and the community support coming.

"I'm muckraking the barn in the morning and fundraising at night," she grins, describing plans to offset the costs of providing free and low-cost therapy by boarding horses and giving riding lessons to able-bodied riders.

And yes, there will always be a need for volunteers and sidewalkers.

"You don't need to know anything about horses, we'll train you," she promises.

"You just have to enjoy working with others."