Horse & Buddy in New Hill is a program that started long before horse programs for disabled kids were recognized options for parents.
In this world of ever-changing therapy options for children and adults, one form of therapy that always captures people’s hearts is therapy programs using animals. Right in our backyard is a program that not only partners people with disabilities of all kinds with horses, but it provides a welcome change from the indoor, gym-inspired therapy programs that are much more the standard.
Horse & Buddy in New Hill is a program that started long before horse programs for disabled kids were recognized options for parents. Today, the program owns 10 horses that have been donated over the years. Those 10 horses provide therapeutic riding seven days a week, morning, afternoon, and evening, for over 100 riders per week. Riders in the program span from two years of age to 83, and struggle with a wide range of disabilities from Down Syndrome to autism.
Janet Mason is the current executive director of Horse & Buddy, which offers two different types of experiences on their property — a therapeutic riding program that connects riders and horses in horseback riding lessons, and hippotherapy. Hippotherapy is a term derived from the Greek word for “horse” and refers to a collaborative therapy session with a physical or occupational therapist that works on defined medical goals. The therapists work one-on-one with the horse and rider rather than a group riding lesson.
But the program today is much different from 16 years ago when Janet first discovered it. Looking for a summer camp for her step kids, Janet went to a farm to check things out. The owners had just started a therapeutic riding program with about 4-5 kids riding on a very part-time basis. “I had always wanted to volunteer for a TR program, but there were none anywhere near my house,” Janet recalls. “I started to volunteer and realized they really needed someone to run it.” Janet lent her expertise to the program, first as an office manager for the entire barn, and then eventually becoming the executive director. They were in that location for about two years before moving to another barn.
The first 15 years saw the program change locations several times before acquiring its current property about eight years ago. With 13 cleared acres on a 33-acre site, Horse & Buddy has plenty of room to work with its current group of riders and horses. It has a 10-stall horse barn with a tack room, office space, and room for classes. They also enjoy a 100×100 riding arena.
In addition to Janet, the program has a full-time program director, a part-time volunteer director, and a number of paid instructors. Janet worked as a volunteer for the first 15 years of her tenure as executive director before becoming a part-time employee in January 2016. And in October, she became full-time. “I was at a point where I couldn’t run the program and work another job full-time,” she explains. “Plus, I knew that no one else would do what I do for free, so the organization needed to get into the practice of paying its executive director for the eventual day when someone else would be in my position.”
Horse & Buddy isn’t just a horse-riding enterprise that happens to accommodate special needs. A member of the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH), all of the riding instructors are certified and have undergone a rigorous six-month training program. Instructors are trained and observed at their home site and then attend a PATH weekend where they take classes, practice teaching, and earn their certification. Instructors have to complete continuing education coursework to keep their certification. In addition to the certified instructors, the program collaborates with the Pediatric Therapy Association to coordinate the hippotherapy with those clients who are actively working on physical and occupational therapy goals.
“Although everything we do has a purpose for kids and adults that are focused on improving a variety of skills,” Janet explains, “we have a lot of fun and our clients really look forward to their sessions. They become part of a family out here.”
The Horse & Buddy website is full of testimonials from happy parents and children who have thrived in the program. In addition to improvement in motor skill development, upper and lower body strength, and balance, they cite huge strides in self-confidence, pride, social skills, and independence. The program also attracts volunteers who work with the horses and help with the riding lessons. Volunteers must be at least 14 years of age and complete a training session to get started.
One of the remarkable things about Horse & Buddy, aside from the pure fun of horses and riding, is that its tremendous growth over the last 15 years has been solely through word of mouth marketing and parent referrals. The program started with one physical therapist at the beginning and added a few more over the years. Networking through parent groups and the special needs community through positive client experiences has been the only source of new clients so far.
Asked if she has any plans to grow the current facility, Janet explains that her goal moving forward is to open additional sites rather than increase the size of their current setup. “Parents have to drive so far to so many different appointments for their kids that we want to minimize the length of time it takes them to get to a decent program.” She would like to open a facility in Pittsboro, where there is currently no program like hers. Fayetteville is another option, which would allow them to add assistance to wounded warriors. Although many people think of therapeutic riding programs as tailored mostly to children, over 25% of the Horse & Buddy clients are adults, and veterans with PTSD and traumatic brain injuries can get a great deal out of riding programs.
Unfortunately, new sites will require capital campaigns to raise the amount of funding needed for land and equipment purchases. Horse & Buddy is a 501c(3) nonprofit organization that is self-sustaining through fees and fundraising, but is beginning to discuss plans for more aggressive fundraising projects as they look toward opening new facilities. The program has two major fundraisers per year – the Buddy Derby where friends and family of current clients and volunteers are asked to donate to the program, and the annual “Sequins and Spurs Gala.” The Gala raised over $80,000 in 2016, which allowed Horse & Buddy to purchase a new Mahindra tractor, make some improvements to their New Hill facility, and hire a full-time executive director.
The program is always looking for volunteers and other support from the communities that surround their facility. They are also operating a short waiting list for new clients, but do eventually get to work with everyone who applies. Area residents who are interested in starting a therapeutic riding program begin with a barn tour and a recommendation from their primary pediatrician or physician. They complete three evaluation rides before staff decides if the program is a good fit and puts together a schedule for the potential rider.
For more information on getting involved in Horse & Buddy, either as a client or a volunteer, contact Janet Mason at (919) 367-7740 or firstname.lastname@example.org.