Have you ever thought about combining therapy with the magic of horse riding? Hearts & Horses is doing just that and making steps towards the future of equine therapy. Hearts & Horses has been in business for 24 years, starting in 1997 with small class therapy on the property and slowly growing to own the full 23-acres outright in 1998. Hearts & Horses run a myriad of programs including a Hearts & Horses for Heroes program for veterans, A Therapeutic riding program, the Riding in the Moment program for individuals with Alzheimer’s and Dementia, a therapy service program and the Changing Leads program for disadvantaged youth.
Their work is also being studied. The equine therapy organization has partnered with Children’s Hospital to take part in a five-year research project that explores the impacts of equine therapy on children with autism. Hearts & Horses has teamed up with Columbia University as well to test curriculum for veterans with PTSD and has partnered with Colorado State University’s occupational therapy research team to work with their therapy service programs to boot.
However, Tamara Merritt, the assistant executive director of Hearts & Horses explained that COVID-19 has taken a toll on the attendance allowed and programming.
“Our goal here is to keep our doors open. We are doing alternative programming right now so that we can maintain an eight-foot distance [instead of] the six feet. It’s really important to us to be able to keep our doors open. It’s changed everything. We’ve had to really rely on our community. So that’s been a pretty amazing thing, our community has shown up with their time with their money. Financially people have been helping because they see the value in this and they want to help us to keep our doors open. We have about 110 hundred to 120 [people] right now on the schedule.”
Before the pandemic, around 220 individuals a week attended programs, now Hearts & Horses has reduced the amount to about 50% to keep riders safe and ensure protocols are kept intact.
Community members are heavily involved in funding the programs, aiding in building more stables, improving arenas and offering volunteer efforts to keep the facilities clean and operating at full capacity. All of these efforts ensure that Hearts & Horses are able to continue their progress in equine therapy, helping others in need and furthering community well-being while doing so.
Jared Powell, the father of Mason Powell a participant in the Therapeutic Riding Program, sang praises of the program that Mason started in June of 2020.
“It’s a phenomenal opportunity to be around animals as somebody that struggles with needing to control everything in his life. The primary piece of what we get here from a control standpoint is to work well with a horse. You can’t tell it what to do. You [have to] work with your horse. It’s helping him understand, working with somebody and something outside of his own mind and his own world that he can find success with. So he’s had times where he is able to be very calm. If he’s calm [than] the horse is calm and it just brings them a lot of joy.”
“I’ve been feeling a lot better after we started doing it, so I really like it. I don’t know. It just makes me feel at peace,” explained Mason.
Dave Erbeck, the sidewalker and volunteer that works with Mason (a sidewalker is a person that walks alongside the horse and the rider, occasionally leading the horse) has seen the progress that Mason has made as well as other individuals who have gone through different programs.
“Out here, there’s not a day goes by that I’ll see something or be a part of something that [makes me cry] at least once. Then when you see progress with a kid like Mason and pretty much all the kids that I’ve dealt with have really improved. This place is absolutely amazing,” stated Erbeck.
Scott Hays a veteran who started the Hearts & Horses for Heroes program in 2012 reached out to Hearts & Horses by recommendation of a therapist.
Hays explained, “I thought, well my whole experiences with horses prior to that had not been real positive. So I thought, what the heck? I got nothing to lose. I came out here and in about two weeks I was hooked.”
The Hearts & Horses for Heroes Program partners veterans with different horses to prepare them for other programs within Hearts & Horses. The veterans work with the horses to get used to sounds, different objects, movements with handlers and becoming more comfortable with other people. The veterans also help with grooming and maintaining the horses to build a better connection between them.
Hays spoke about how the program increased his confidence with others through the stability of the horses.
“I feel more comfortable talking with people when I’m out here. I’ve not been able to take that outside of here yet. I have a hard time. So when I do come out, if you would have caught me at home and we were doing this [interview], I probably wouldn’t talk. Now you can’t shut me up,” said Hays.
Hearts & Horses has plans to continue its programming and eventually expand and improve its facilities in the future. The organization also plans to continue its research and grant partner programs to explore how equine therapy can impact different neurological situations and change lives in the process.
Hearts & Horses is located at 163 N. Co Rd. 29, Loveland
All photography by Adrienne Thomas.