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Support is sought for sympathetic steeds who help children with special needs

A boy sits atop a brown and white horse with his fist up in the air.
Hearts & Hands for Horses
A young client enjoys his interaction with one of the mounts at Hearts & Hands for Horses in Thomasville

Most young people have a fascination for horses. The horses at a special ranch not far from Tallahassee are helping heal children with special needs. The name of the organization is Hands & Hearts for Horses. It's located in Thomasville, Georgia and its combination director and instructor is Susie Shin.

"So, Hands & Hearts for Horses is a nonprofit organization that provides therapeutic horseback riding and horsemanship lessons to people over the age of 4 with any kind of medical disability or special needs."

What makes horses ideal therapy animals?

"Obviously, everyone knows about dogs. But horses are unique in that they are actually prey animals. The way that they sense their environment, they are constantly in tune. And humans are obviously predators. So the horses actually reflect a lot of that energy because that's how they've been built to survive over the years. The adage is, 'the horse can smell your fear,' and that's the energy you're putting off as a 'predator.' The horse is reading that energy and reflecting it because evolutionary-wise, that's how they were always able to survive."

For the young people who work with the horses, Shin said the positive impacts are many.

"Just being able to handle and ride a 1,200-pound animal in and of itself is a huge confidence-builder and a lot of studies have been done physiologically. A horse's hips actually move in the same way a human's do."

Which, she explained, has physical therapy benefits.

"You think about the ability for a client who maybe is in a wheelchair or has some kind of gait or physical disability. When they're sitting on a horse, you've got them using their muscular and skeletal system in the way that they would similar to if they were walking, but they're not having to load-bear."

But those aren't the only therapeutic advantages that horses offer.

"We have a really cool story from our founder that there was a young lady who couldn't brush her hair. And that was one of the goals that her parents told. She actually learned to brush the horse's mane and in turn, learned to brush her own hair."

Shin said the Hands & Hearts for Horses center outside of Thomasville is a busy place nowadays.

"We have currently 130 clients that we see in a given week. We have a client who comes from Panama City Beach, from Wakulla - Crawfordville - all the way up South Georgia to Albany. The closest therapy center that provides similar services under another foundation is in Valdosta."

Shin said it takes considerable resources to keep Hands & Hearts for Horses in operation. That necessitates a yearly major fund-raiser, which has been adjusted in keeping with pandemic protocols.

"Because of football season—and North Florida and South Georgia love football, we decided to have a tailgate in honor of Oktoberfest and to bring the community together to have an event to help us underwrite the cost of taking care of 19 therapy horses and providing scholarships, which we provide to about 40% of our clients."

This year's event, said Shin, will happen on Saturday, October 23rd.

"This is our twist on a tailgate [party], having everyone come out to the farm, have a big bar-b-que, enjoy the evening and community and help underwrite the cost."

The event will help cover costs associated with caring for horses that provide so many remarkable benefits for the differently-abled kids who work with them.

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Tom Flanigan has been with WFSU News since 2006, focusing on covering local personalities, issues, and organizations. He began his broadcast career more than 30 years before that and covered news for several radio stations in Florida, Texas, and his home state of Maryland.

Find complete bio, contact info, and more stories. here.