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Pooler Magazine

HOOFS 4 HEALING : A Special Place Where Horses Provide Therapy

Story by Barbara Russell

Karen and Ken Stewart fi nd joy in the same thing – seeing a child smile, and seeing a child’s eyes light up when they see their special horse, and that happens regularly at their Hoofs 4 Healing facility. In March of this year, Karen and Ken assumed operations of Hoofs 4 Healing Equestrian Services, Inc. and they relocated the program to their property on Stagecoach Road in Bloomingdale which is just minutes from Pooler.

Equine Assisted Activities Therapy (EAAT) is the use of horses to achieve goals that enhance physical, emotional, social, cognitive and behavioral disorders. Instructors are certified and teach educational horseback riding skills to people who have disabilities such as Autism, ADD, ADHD, spina bifi da, Down Syndrome, muscular dystrophy and other learning disabilities. EAAT focuses on therapeutic riding skills and the development of a relationship between horse and rider. Riders do not have to ride to  benefit; the horses can act as an aid – as a companion to be cared for.

Karen explains that Hoofs 4 Healing, a facility for Equine Assisted Activities Therapy, is a place where a child gets to find acceptance, kindness, joy and movement. “This is their sport, not soccer, basketball or cheerleading,” says Karen, “just horses, just a time to have fun, just a one-on-one connection with their special horse. They may not be able to walk or run, but they can ride and feel the movement of walking. They may not be able to move their hands or legs, but they can feel the breath of a horse against their hands, and they can glide in the saddle like they are flying as they are led around the arena. A day at Hoofs 4 Healing is all about them.” There are four horses in the Hoofs 4 Healing program that were donated to be used for equine assisted therapy, and Karen and Ken also use two of their personal horses. Each horse is very gentle and has special abilities to meet the physical, mental and emotional needs of these special students. Let’s meet the horses: “All the horses are gentle, but Fancy is exceptionally gentle with the children. One of her special qualities is that she is a Paso Fino with a smooth gait that helps work core muscles and builds strength of the riders. She’s often used for fi rst time riders,” says Karen.

“Fancy is the favorite of Pepe’ Lorza,” says Ken. “It’s the personal contact with the horse. She will breathe on his hands and make him smile really big. When being ridden, she’s very smooth, giving him the movement of walking.”

Rayban, a bay quarter horse, is also very gentle, as all the horses are, but he has a special talent – he is very good at lunging. When a horse is lunging, it is attached to a long line and walks and trots in a circle around the person controlling the lunge line. “Rayban is very good with teaching the rider in the beginning stages of riding such as walk, trot, and body alignment,” says Karen.

“Carol is the leader of the herd. He is a dark bay, 161/2 hands high – That’s huge to some people, but size does not intimidate the kids,” says Karen. “They can sense that they (the horses) are very gentle, and Carol is a gentle giant.” Horses have friends too. “Raban and Carol are buddies, and they’ll eat out of the same bucket,” says Karen.

“Before coming to Hoofs 4 Healing, Carol was a champion open jumper, but he suffered an injury that prevented him from jumping anymore, and now he is enjoying his second career as a therapy horse.” “Shay is a gray Arabian. Shay was donated by one of our Board of Directors, Jamie Durrence. Jamie bottle-fed Shay from a small colt after his mother was not able to care for him and trained him to be a beautiful jumper. He’s super smart in the arena and we use him for our more experienced riders.” Karen and Ken use two of their personal horses, Phoenix and Hooch, in their program. “Phoenix is a beautiful palomino. We have a picture of him on the back of our Hoofs 4 Healing t-shirts, and we consider him our mascot. He is very gentle and sensitive around the kids,” says Karen. “He is good for sensory activities with the children. He will lick hands and breathe softly on their faces, and he knows some tricks. He will shake hands and put his head down to pray!”

“Hooch is a retired reining horse,” says Ken. “He knows just what to do – he’s on autopilot with the kids!” “Through these horses, the children find acceptance, kindness and joy,” says Karen, “and that’s more important that anything that money can buy.” It’s easy to feel Karen’s empathy and enthusiasm and to recognize her innate love for children. That loving human component is a necessity to make Hoofs 4 Healing successful. “All our instructors are certified with The Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (P.A.T.H.). The program was founded by Kerrie Griffin Henry in 2013, utilizing the horses to their highest capacity to bring her passion to life for others. Karrie has 20 plus years working with special needs children, active military and veterans.” Karen and Ken both have a lifetime of experience with horses. Karen’s father, Gerald Douberly, a Certified Journeyman Farrier for 45 years, had 20 to 30 horses, so naturally Karen grew up in the saddle, and summer days and weekends were spent with their horses from dawn to dusk.

Ken is a Vietnam Veteran and served as a Force Recon Marine, and he also has always enjoyed riding and training horses. Ken is a cancer survivor, and after being diagnosed with stage four throat cancer, he thought he would not be able to ride again, yet he gets up every day to take care of the barn and horses…he knows fi rsthand the benefits of therapy.

It’s obvious that Ken is a very tough guy, but he also is a gentle spirit. He loves being a side walker during the riding therapy sessions, experiencing the joy of the riders and seeing those special smiles. He has a special smile too when describing the smiles of these special children. It’s obvious that the joy he experiences is real.

It’s been less than a year since Karen and Ken have assumed operations of Hoofs 4 Healing, and their days have been busy and productive. They are giving regularly scheduled lessons with special needs children, they had two summer camps, and they also give riding lessons to able-bodied riders. Of course, this would not have been possible without their staff of very gentle and well-trained therapy horses and the volunteers who perform many tasks. Atmosphere is important, and “We try to make it fun,” says Ken, “whatever their needs are. We use activities based on different levels to meet the child’s needs.”

The Hoofs 4 Healing programs will continue to expand. Soon they will have a Wounded Warrior Program where veterans with PTSD will have their own day at the facility. They also hope to become more involved with the school system: for example with field trips, and to have more summer camps next summer, but their biggest goal is to have a covered arena.

Karen and Ken Stewart have put their hearts and souls into reestablishing and expanding the Hoofs 4 Healing therapeutic riding program. The result? It is flourishing and ready to grow. Could just about anybody develop and maintain an equine assisted activities therapy facility? Probably not.

“You know, it takes a special person to do that, ….a loving person,” said someone who has known Karen for a lifetime – her dad. Hoofs 4 Healing is a special place… with special horses…for special children…with special needs. Stop by, or volunteer, to be part of this special facility, and one day your eyes may light up when you see a special child with one of these very special horses. It’s been said many times that “the outside of a horse is good for the inside of man,” and Hoofs 4 Healing is a place to experience it!

Volunteers are always needed Currently, they have about eight volunteers who work on a rotating schedule. They are trained on safety, and they perform a variety of jobs which may include working directly with the horses or helping with tasks such as signing in students or making sure helmets fi t. Exercise riders are also needed. Volunteers are needed in many other areas such as: marketing and advertising, grant writing, building a website, social media, videos, photography and barn maintenance.

Anyone interested in volunteering can contact Karen at or (912) 313-0618. The best time to call is 8:30 to 9:00 a.m. or after 8:30 p.m. Hoofs 4 Healing will be having a Ribbon Cutting and a Grand Opening very soon. Dates will be posted on Facebook.