Friday Standing Ovation by Ovation Riding

Today’s honoree: Horses Healing Hearts, serving the children of alcoholics.

This week’s honoree:


Horses Healing Hearts is a 501(c)(3) charity that uses equine-assisted therapy to help children of alcoholics and addicts. The program focuses on teaching healthy behaviors and coping skills, enabling children to make better choices for a successful life. HHH’s founder and executive director Lizabeth Olszewski kindly took some time to answer our questions.

Lizabeth Olszewski and 'Robinio.' Photo by Joanna Jodko.

Lizabeth Olszewski and ‘Robinio.’ Photo by Joanna Jodko.

What inspired you to create HHH?

I started HHH in 2009 because both of my parents were alcoholics, and the barn was the only place I felt safe and accepted. My dad was absent most of my life. My mother died when I was twenty-four of liver disease from alcoholism. She was diagnosed when I was fourteen as having six months to live, but made it another ten years. During those ten years, it was horses and mentors that inspired me to make different choices and create a better life for myself.

Using horses and mentors to help children of alcoholics and addicts in a program concept had never been tried before, but I knew there were 11 million children of alcoholics. If horses and mentors saved my life, I knew a program like this could save others. I simply wanted to “pay it forward.”

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Please describe the typical (if there is such a thing) participant at HHH.

Our “typical” HHH participants are children aged six through eighteen with one or more parents addicted to drugs or alcohol. A startling one quarter of our children have lost a parent to suicide, overdose, or jail.

In homes with addiction, kids learn three unspoken rules: “don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel.” Obeying these rules allows them to “survive” in the moment, but in the long term these rules virtually guarantee the cycle of addiction to continue, and here’s why:  human psyches aren’t equipped to handle “stuffed” feelings for long periods of time. Eventually these painful feelings emerge and bubble to the surface.

When this happens (typically in the teens to early twenties), the child or young adult wants to find a way to numb and escape the pain — typically turning to drugs or alcohol. Many times they’ve promised themselves that they will never “be a drunk or an addict” like their parents, but using substances to numb feelings and escape reality is all they know. Unless someone else in or outside the family has “modeled” healthy behavior or coping skills as an alternative, they literally never saw healthy communication and interaction between adults. Consequently they have no tools and very little chance of a different life.  How can they emulate behavior they’ve never seen?

These children are typically very resilient, bright and are quite adept at acting like all is well. But in an environment of their peer COAs (children of alcoholics) where they feel safe and free to share, they are very brave and willing to let go of this baggage. They know it’s not healthy to carry around.

We had one child tell us, “before HHH my stomach would start hurting every day on the bus because I was worried about what I would walk into at home, but now from Wednesday on I think it’s safe to start looking forward to HHH. So I start thinking about that as soon as I get on the bus, and my stomach stops hurting. So now I just need to find something to help me on Monday and Tuesday!”

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What kind of individual programs do you offer through HHH?

Our Children’s Prevention Education Program offers weekly two-hour sessions which include peer-to-peer counseling overseen by a prevention specialist and an opportunity to ride.

Our adjunct programs include a mentoring program and a family program, and we are getting ready to start a career-shadowing program.

We also offer an equine therapy program to adults using the EAGALA model. This is an experiential, evidence-based program that is used in more than fifty countries.

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Do you own/operate your own facility, or contract with a local barn?

We do not have our own facility.  Our model uses “Host Barns.”

Prior to starting HHH I did a lot of research and discovered equine charities had a 68% failure rate in the first two years due to the high cost of (horse/barn) operating expenses. I wanted to stay focused on the fact that our goal is to help the children through the horses. It was important that the cost of keeping the horses didn’t hinder the level of services and programs we offered to the kids. After researching other models online, I came across Kathy Kusner’s program that was started thirty years ago in Los Angeles – Horses in the Hood. This program offers inner-city kids an opportunity for a horse summer camp, but instead of having her own barn, she built relationships with area barns and used their facilities.

So our choice of using Host Barns was modeled after the “Horses in the Hood” program. We “lease” the horses and trainers during the times we are there. This concept was born out of necessity, but we’ve chosen to continue it for fiscal health reasons ensuring not only our survival but enabling HHH to deliver the highest percentage of donated dollars to children’s services instead of horse care. Do we ever want to have our own facility? Maybe, but with conditions, such as a debt-free property, two year’s operating revenue in the bank and confirmation from our Board of Directors and largest donors it’s the right decision for us long term.

Ironically, four years into operating HHH, I would have one of many serendipitous moments! One of our HHH Equestrian Ambassadors, Peter Wylde, asked me if I knew of Kathy Kusner.  Did I know her?!?!… She was an icon!!  It turns out they had been friends for years and he introduced me to her a few weeks later.

We sat at the show grounds in Wellington for three hours (which seemed like ten minutes) sharing information on our programs.  She’s such an inspiration and made me feel comfortable because she’s so down to earth. I learned a great deal from her that day. It’s moments like these that I know this program was meant to be. I truly believe there are no coincidences!

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How much do you rely on volunteer help?

We rely on our volunteers a great deal. We have approximately thirty volunteers who absolutely love what they do and are very good at it! HHH simply could not exist without our volunteers. Our Board of Directors, Advisory Board, Fundraising Committee, Equestrian Ambassadors, weekly session volunteers and Host Barn volunteers all work together to make this organization thrive!

Where does your funding come from? Any upcoming fundraisers?

Our funding comes from grants (public and private), revenue from our equine therapy, and from fundraisers. We have four very exciting fundraisers coming up!

  • Cowboy Up for a Cause! (Western fair/rodeo) Saturday, November 14th, 2015  Noon – 4 pm at the Van Kampen Arena, Wellington, FL
  • Peter Wylde Clinic    Jan. 2016   Equus Equestrian Facility – Boynton Beach, FL
  • 2nd Annual Hope Through Horses Golf Tournament    Monday, February 22, 2016  8 am – 2 pm    Wanderers Golf Club, Wellington, FL
  • 5th Annual White, White West Gala Friday, February 26th, 2016   7 – 11 pm   International Polo Club – Wellington, FL


Anything else important we should know?

Yes, there are three other points I’d like to share:

Why horses work so well for this population: As I mentioned earlier children of alcoholics “stuff” their feelings out of the need to survive their home environment. Horses are such a great tool for this population because being a prey animal, the limbic portion of their brain (intuition, feeling, social aspects) are over-developed (as compared to humans). This has happened over generations for survival – similar to the children who have “stuffed” or “numbed” to survive. Horses have highly attuned radar to survive. Although both are hyper-vigilent, their opposite reactions complement for healing.

Horses are very adept at recognizing incongruency in humans. What does this mean? If a person is feeling one thing on the inside (i.e. “in their gut”) but showing a different emotion on their face, the horse knows … and doesn’t like it.  They don’t feel safe, and won’t connect with that person. So we tell the kids, the same way that a dog can “smell fear,” a horse can tell if your “insides don’t match your outsides.” If you want to connect with the horse, they have to match.

We had a teenage girl a few years ago say, “I’ve not felt my feelings for so long, I don’t know if I remember how.” We told her “it’s okay, just be around the horses and it will happen naturally.” The first few times around the horse, she was very quiet. The third time to the farm she was brushing the horse’s neck and I noticed her shoulders shaking from behind. She was sobbing but trying to hold it in. I walked over and said, “do you know the feelings you’re having?” She said, “They’re all coming so fast and they’re all mixed together. I can’t tell one from another or what they are. It’s like the flood gate busted open.”

Then she asked something very telling: “Are my tears … is my crying upsetting the horse?” (This is typical co-dependent behavior of COAs – attempt to keep everyone okay and happy around them.) I said, “No, the tears you’re crying are not hurting the horse.  Your HIDDEN tears would upset him. But he’s comfortable with you crying, because he knows you’re being authentic.” She smiled a little, kept crying and kept brushing. Thanks to the horse, she left that day a little lighter, and proud that she was brave enough to feel for the first time in a long time.

Research grant for saliva/cortisol study: The University of Washington conducted a study that measured the level of cortisol (stress hormone) in the saliva of children before and after working with horses. The results showed a marked reduction after working with the horses. (Even Winston Churchill shared, “there is something about the outside of the horse that is good for the inside of a man.”) We have known working with horses is beneficial, but now we have proof. HHH is seeking $100,000 for funding research to conduct this same study on children of alcoholics.

Plans for national expansion: Equestrian programs helping “at-risk children” have been in existence for years; however, HHH was the originator of the concept using horses to help children of alcoholics and addicts. Because there are 11 million children of alcoholics, there is great need for this program nationally. HHH is a model that can be replicated to help COAs across the country.

We currently have interest from three states (Ohio, Virginia, and Washington state) to start HHH affiliates. Additional states where we’d like to expand: 
Texas, Kentucky, and New York.

We are seeking seed grants (approximately $10K per location) to fund start-up costs for the affiliate locations in the aforementioned areas.

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If you’d like to learn more about Horses Healing Hearts, we encourage you to visit the organization’s website. You can also follow Horses Healing Hearts on Facebook and Twitter.

Many thanks thanks to Ovation Riding for their support of both Horse Nation and individuals and organizations that are doing good work in the horse world. If you know someone who deserves a Standing Ovation, we would love to recognize them in a future post. Email the name of the person or organization along with a message about the good work they do to [email protected]. Photos/videos are always welcome, and include a link to their website if applicable.

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