Today’s honoree: Bearfoot Ranch of Gainesville, Georgia.
Candace Wade reports.
My friend Alex trains in dressage at Bearfoot Ranch in Gainseville, GA. Trainer and facility director, Edie Ahola, makes sure that Alex’s autism, Cerebral Palsy and past stroke don’t stop the 19 year old from competing and winning ribbons at the Special Olympics.
Edie educated me about the Bearfoot facility when I visited to shadow Alex during his lesson. Bearfoot Ranch is a 501(c)(3) non-profit equestrian center dedicated to providing therapeutic riding lessons. Edie is a PATH Certified Therapy Instructor. She was in the public school system for 10 years as a special needs paraprofessional.
Edie considers Bearfoot a small therapy center: about 25 riders take instruction every week. That number increases to 35 during Special Olympics season. The summer camp season is busy with horse-games, lessons and trail rides. My friend Alex helped work with the younger camp kids this last summer.
I asked Edie about the challenges she and her volunteers address. She told me: “The most challenging are riders in wheelchairs — getting them on and off the horse with dignity.” Balance can be an issue. Edie strives to “keep the riders safe in the saddle while allowing independence.” The greatest challenge seems to be riders with more severe autistic symptoms. “We have riders who do not interact during the lesson. They may not hold the reins, try to steer the horse or even pet the horse. As the instructor, you wonder if you are making a difference.”
Edie showed me some of the equestrian-based activities used at Bearfoot. “We try to teach all the basics of the walking gait. The goal is to help the riders be as independent as possible. Several riders are working on the posting trot and a few are trying the canter. We spend some time going through the obstacles in the arena — moving the horse around barrels, over poles and a bridge, stopping by the mailbox to retrieve a card. The younger riders enjoy our ‘sign trail’ — signs along the paddock fences showing activities/responses for the kids to perform — sticking their tongue out, or giving their side-walker a fist bump. The signs were made for us by a Girl Scout troop.”
Edie shares, “Our funding is about 60% from our programs and 40% from donations/fundraisers. The volunteer staff is our life blood. We depend on these wonderful people to keep us running. My hope is to add a few more male volunteers to help with a veteran program. We pay for all the vet bills. Sometimes we may resort to a GoFundMe page to meet an unexpected expense like the strangles last year. The whole barn had to be quarantined just before Special Olympics. Our vet and his receptionist actually helped us line up donated horses for us to use at the Special Olympics horse show.”
Bearfoot Ranch rescues horses that have been abused or neglected. These horses come from owner surrender, local animal control, or are purchased to remove from a bad situation. The Bearfoot stable of therapy horses includes the following rescues: an Arabian, a 17 hand Percheron and two Tennessee Walking Horses. The TWH are enjoyed for their rocking-horse canter.
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.