By Samantha Lambert
Melissa Wood sits straight up in the saddle as she rides around the ring on Levi. Two side-walkers and a lead walker guide her and Levi gently through their paces. Melissa gives the commands to halt and go. The whole time she is riding, there is a huge smile on her face. That is the beauty of GRACE Rides, a therapeutic riding program in Niceville for individuals with special needs.
GRACE Rides started in 2008 working out of the Oak Heaven Stables equestrian facility in Niceville. The goal was to continue the good work of RACE (Riding for Adults and Children with Exceptionalities), Okaloosa County’s first therapeutic riding program. RACE was a program that operated in Baker from 1996 to 2006 and was run by volunteers.
Sherry Hall and her husband Steve founded GRACE Rides. Sherry grew up in Northwest Florida on a working farm with horses. She also gained knowledge of special needs students when she was young by volunteering in special education classes taught by her mother. She graduated from Florida State University in 1982 with degrees in both Clinical Psychology and Rehabilitation Counseling/Education. She also received a Juris Doctorate degree from FSU in 1986. Sherry has devoted herself full-time to GRACE Rides since 2010.
GRACE Rides focuses primarily on Equine-Assisted Activities and Therapies (EATT) along with Equine-Assisted Learning (EAL). GRACE Rides helps individuals who are autistic, have Down syndrome, Cerebral Palsy, ADD/ADHD, traumatic brain injuries, and more. The rhythmic nature of the horse’s gait and the animal’s body heat provide a natural vehicle for physical therapy by loosening tight muscles, helping to strengthen the rider’s muscle tone, and encouraging digestion and circulation. All of this helps to improve the lives and community of each of the program participants, each of their family members, each of the service horses, and each of the volunteers.
GRACE Rides incorporates horse rescue, rehabilitation, and retirement to provide therapeutic riding, equine assisted activities, and horsemanship programs to individuals with special needs. The horses vary in size from small to large, and also vary in movement. Each horse has been tested vigorously prior to acceptance into the program to ensure that their talents and dispositions are a good match for the program participants.
As the riders interact with the horses they develop respect and love for the animals. Because horses require a great deal of attention, the riders bond quickly with them as they groom, feed and ride them. They develop responsibility, patience and compassion as they care for the horses.
Program participant Melissa Wood is 24 and has a brain injury. She started coming to GRACE Rides about eight years ago. “Melissa loves riding,” says mom Kim. “It helps her balance and strengthens her core. She is not afraid of the horses at all and wants to ride.”
Nathan Taylor started coming to GRACE Rides about a month ago. He is 16 and has Down syndrome. Today he is riding Sonny. “This program gives Nathan something to look forward to,” says his mother Denise. “He really enjoys it. It has helped him with his speech as well by giving commands to the horse. He talks about it at school to the other students.”
Presently GRACE Rides serves an average of 35 riders a week and has a waiting list. The areas served are from Pensacola to Crestview and Baker and out to South Walton. All program participants are encouraged to donate toward the cost of operations if they are able to, but no rider is turned away due to lack of financial resources. GRACE Rides depends on the support of individuals and organizations in the community who give of their time, money and resources.
“There are so many blessings with what we do,” says Hall. “The kids thrive and benefit with daily living skills. Plus, we give our horses—who are show horses who have aged out—a second chance.”
GRACE Rides has many volunteers who help out assisting riders, keeping the facility running smoothly and helping with daily horse pampering. The GRACE Rides family also includes volunteers Anne Jennette, who has nearly completed her PATH Certification (the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International); and Trisha Everton, who has her PATH certification.
Last month, ground was broken for a new facility on 40 acres in DeFuniak Springs, which will double the amount of individuals who can be served. There will be six tacking and grooming bays for participants to work with the horses inside the barn. In Phase 1, the barn, arena and sensory arena will be built. In Phase 2, a cover for the arena will be built. In Phase 3, an auditorium, cafeteria and camp cabins will be built.
Future plans also include a program for military veterans dealing with PTSD and a wellness program for active duty military returning from deployment. GRACE Rides also hope to set up a work study program with the ARC, a nonprofit that assists people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Learn more at gracerides.com.