Healing horsesPublished 3:49pm Monday, January 6, 2014
The Red Barn offers equine-assisted activities
By Lauren Heartsill Dowdle/Special to the Reporter
There’s something about horses that make them a mystical part of many children’s imaginations. For those with physical, emotional or cognitive disabilities, these majestic creatures have provided much more – from therapeutic relationships to fun afternoons – at The Red Barn in Leeds.
Joy O’Neal and her friends launched The Red Barn, now a 501(c)3 organization, in 2010 on the banks of the Little Cahaba River. Two years later, they merged the program with the Spirit of Hope Youth Ranch, which began in Wilsonville.
“We started it because we saw a need,” O’Neal says. “So many kids could benefit from working with horses.”
The stables are open year round and house between 12 and 14 horses that have all gone through extensive training and evaluations. The barn’s visitors range from 3 to 60 years old, although the majority of them are children. “Our main goal is to improve their communication, problem solving, teamwork and just let the kids be kids having fun,” O’Neal says.
There are nominal charges for some of the programs, which include Horse Play, primarily held during summer or school breaks; Saddle Up, specialty-type lessons; Take the Reins, for active/inactive military personnel and their families, and other lessons.
“The emphasis isn’t to ride horses but to learn about how your behavior impacts the relationship with the horse,” O’Neal says. “It mirrors a human family or local community. When they learn how horses get along, they can translate that over to their relationships.
“Horses want a relationship with you,” she continues. “They are herd animals, like how we live in families. It’s a good metaphor for them to see that. Children are just drawn to them.”
Not only is the horse program helpful for the children, but their parents are also encouraged to be a part of it. “It gives them an experience they can share,” O’Neal says. For children who are adopted, coming to the barn can be a good way for them to build relationships with their adopted parents.
While there are no criteria to come to The Red Barn, the staff tries to serve those who couldn’t ride somewhere else. “We take the lessons slow,” O’Neal says. “It’s more about the experience with the horse.”
The organization also offers day camps where children of all ages and disabilities can come together for riding, folk art, drum circles or other fun activities. These programs allow the children to interact with not just the horses, but also their peers. “To have a child with a moderate disability be a leader among others is a rare experience in their lives,” O’Neal says.
The staff hopes to expand the program to include more camps and classes in the future. “We want to get the word out there and be able to serve more,” O’Neal says.
To learn more about The Red Barn, visit theredbarnfoundation.org.