19 years ago my husband Buddy and I and our family began an adventure that turned into a love story.
We had two daughters at the time who wanted to compete in barrel racing on their horses. We went to several events in our area and decided we wanted a more family-friendly place for our children to compete. So in August 2000 we built Possum Snout Arena. And sure enough people, families started coming to our Fun Shows.
One of those families was Kay and Bobby Smith, their two sons, Ben and Sam, and an amazing 10-year-old daughter, Rachel. Rachel was born with spina bifida; she had no use of her body from the waist down. Ben and Sam rode in our Fun Shows and demonstrated their cowboy abilities with great ease. Rachel, on the other hand, sat at the corner of the arena in her wheel chair with her cowgirl boots and cowgirl hat and cheered everyone on.
One day after a show, my husband asked Rachel what she thought about it, and her response still brings tears to my eyes:
“I just wish I could be like everyone else and ride in this show.”
Enough said. Buddy asked her parents’ permission to teach her how to ride, and the love story begins. It was God’s 2×4 across our hard heads that we had built this arena for more than just our daughters and regular families. We built this arena for those less fortunate than ourselves.
That same year, Jeff Fishman brought his daughter to ride in our shows. Jeff was a Behavioral Therapist for youth and adolescents at a local hospital, and we conspired together to create an Equine-Assisted Therapy (EAT) program for these clients. EAT is designed to help people with psychological, physical, or substance abuse issues.
The goal of our 6-week “Break the Cycle” program is a trail ride – but the REAL ultimate goal is for the participants to begin to unravel and dig deep into the issues they are dealing with. There’s no better way to accomplish this than with a loyal, loving and trustworthy horse that can genuinely demonstrate unconditional love to a child that may feel so undeserving of this kind of love.
Breathing in rhythm with the horse, or smelling the horse’s neck while taking deep breaths, can calm an anxiety attack in seconds. And remembering that feeling during a real-life situation can defuse a crisis before it erupts. We introduce partnering with a horse as opposed to controlling a horse, as the child may have been controlled by a predator themselves.
Horses are large and powerful animals that can be very intimidating to an inexperienced participant. And the arena in which we work is outdoors and has dirt and horse poop, which can trigger high levels of discomfort and uncertainty. This all disappears as the kids help the horse understand what is wanted and be willing to do it.
Horses also have their very own personalities and they bond with kids with similar personalities. Stubborn Sunny will most likely bond with a kid with a stubborn nature. Cool and calm Blue will bond with a kid that is also cool and calm. Rider is the “alpha horse” – he looks for the leaders of the pack. There is nothing more therapeutic than your horse greeting you with a nuzzle and tail swish.
Ten years ago, a young cowboy came to one of our horse shows. He loved the environment, and talked with his boss at KidsPeace in Bowdon, GA. An agreement was reached to bring kids that demonstrated improved behaviors to participate in what is now Rachel’s Wish Foundation at Possum Snout Arena.
The relationship between Rachel’s Wish Foundation and KidsPeace has grown due to their willingness to step outside of the box and try innovative ideas to help their clients. This relationship isn’t just a business arrangement; it is a partnership designed to empower kids in their treatment programs, and a partnership to introduce KidsPeace kids to the community as positive, trustworthy and responsible members of their community.
And the love story grows…
Rachel’s Wish Foundation hosts the “It’s All About Me Games” for our Special Needs community. This past year we asked Terri Nixon at KidsPeace if we could partner for this event with KidsPeace kids serving as volunteers. Terry and Executive Director Lou Shagawat enthusiastically agreed. We met with the KidsPeace kids and talked about what to expect.
When the day came, my highest expectations did not even come close to how well the KidsPeace kids did with the special needs participants. I remember how one of the special needs men placed his hand in one of the KidsPeace kids’ hands; the young man took that rider’s hand and they just stood there, watching the horses together. When it came time to eat, I looked around and several of the KidsPeace kids were spoon-feeding some of the riders as they could not feed themselves.
My hope and prayer is that this is a never-ending love story. You see, one of our daughters that we built the arena for, Sara Sims, is now our Program Director.