Bonnie Rachael knew she wanted to make a difference in her community, but she had no idea how. All she had was a small farm with a couple of horses and a lifetime of equine knowledge, and she didn’t see how she could use either to help others.
But when a friend at church pointed Rachael toward a magazine article about therapeutic riding, she knew she had found her calling.
“I just felt like the good lord had touched my heart and told me, ‘This is what I want you to do,’” Rachael says.
Faith Equestrian Therapeutic Center opened in 2006 with Rachael using her two horses to serve two students. Now the program boasts 12 horses and five miniature ponies and offers an equine-assisted therapeutic activity program for more than 100 individuals with physical, mental or emotional disabilities.
Rachael estimates about 90 percent of her students are children, including about 70 from eight local schools in Effingham County ranging from elementary to high school who participate in Faith Equestrian’s Equine-Facilitated Learning Program — an eight-week curriculum in which students with special needs enjoy educational activities, scavenger hunts, and assistant therapeutic rides.
Many of those students have limited options for physical activities, but learning to ride can help them build core strength that aids in everyday activities, as well as coax students to use verbal commands and improve emotional well-being through the bond formed between horse and rider.
“When we put these kids on horses, they’re just like everybody else,” Rachael said. “Anywhere a horse can go with a typical person, it can go with a person with a disability.”
That freedom can help participants build confidence and self-esteem while providing incentive to take part in physical therapy.
“We’ve had therapists come out with some of these kids and they can’t believe what they see in terms of the motivation that’s there,” Rachael said. “It’s so different from a clinical environment where they’re asked to squeeze a ball or push something. They’re with a real, live animal and they can interact with the animal and socialize with one another. It makes them forget about their disability and focus on their abilities.”
Thanks to providers such as Easter Seals and B&B Care Services, many of Faith Equestrian’s students do not have to pay out of pocket, but the organization relies heavily on donations to achieve its mission. Despite a large volunteer base, the cost of each session — including paying certified instructors and caring for the horses — breaks down to about $78 per child. The Center’s cost for an eight-week session with students from local schools runs about $400 per child, and the cost of the program is not subsidized by the school district or county.
From helping a young boy with autism speak his first words, to witnessing a girl with cerebral palsy steer a horse on her own, Faith Equestrian has changed the lives of families in Effingham County. With your support, they can do so much more.