Horses of Hope

By Kathleen Swift

I’ve often said there is nothing better for the inside of the man, than the outside of the horse. Ronald Reagan

In so many ways, riders find hope and courage at Horses of Hope. When Shelly McColm and Vallerie Sweeten co-founded the organization over 20 years ago, it was a dream come true for them, and it was the beginning of hope for so many with physical and emotional needs.


Horses of Hope provides unique, educational, therapeutic and life experiences that inspire and change lives. Located in Baxter Springs, Kansas, and Buffalo, Missouri, and now serving the Carthage, Missouri, area at the Lucky J Arena as an off-site location.


Shelly found her inspiration for Horses of Hope after working with a disabled child using her daughter’s show horse and realized this was the type of work she wanted to do. Vallerie worked in special education in schools and was involved in the show horse world and knew she wanted to be a part of the therapeutic riding center.


“It was a natural blend,” said Shelly, “of a horse person and an educator working together. When I decided to open a therapeutic riding center, I went to the Quarter Horse Journal and found an ad for North American Riding for Handicapped, called the number, and the rest is history.”


Horses of Hope meets and exceeds the standards from Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH, INTL) for best practices in therapeutic riding.


Vallerie explained, “Riding helps a rider with balance, posture, mobility and function. A disabled rider gets on a horse and their body responds with a more typical walking pattern. Sitting on a horse and going for a walk creates a normalized movement. It helps riders use their own muscles and gives the body and brain access to full normalized movement.”


Typical of successes at Horses of Hope, Isabella was four years old when she began riding there. She had communication and social interaction deficiencies and was recently diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.


“When Isabella first came to Horses of Hope, she wasn’t very verbal, and when she did speak, it was in a language of her own,” said Shelly. “She called everyone mom and had poor eye contact, balance and posture. The movement of the horse filled a sensory need for her. After her third ride, Isabella was able to say ‘walk on’ when asked what to say to the horse to get it to move. From there, she quickly gained purposeful language and improved eye contact. After a year, Isabella has great eye contact and even asks to repeat an activity she enjoys. She is making great strides in communication, social interaction and physical well-being.


“Our mission is about hope,” said Shelly. “That means not only for our riders but for their families. For families, Horses of Hope provides a time of respite, comfort and joy as they watch their rider develop new skills.”


“We couldn’t do what we do without our horses,” said Vallerie. “Many of our horses are top caliber show horses who aren’t able to compete anymore, and additionally, we have outstanding horses of many breeds. In our program, our riders get to work with the best horses with many years of experience. These horses have a purpose and mission in life at Horses of Hope. The horses have a chance to continue to work and make a difference in people’s lives. The horses give our riders confidence and bring a sense of hope to our riders.”


Horses of Hope offers a variety of programs for able-bodied riders and those with disabilities.


“Mind…Body…Spirit…Horse…is a mental health program utilizing Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy (EFP),” Shelly said. “EFP is an experiential process in which a licensed mental health professional works with a credentialed equine mental health specialist, therapy horse and client(s) to address psychotherapy goals as identified by the mental health professional and the client(s). EFP makes use of the natural behavior of the horse to draw out powerful metaphors on the client’s own patterns of behavior, inherent strengths and non-verbal communication. We offer individual, family and group therapy options in this program,” said Shelly.


To learn more about the services offered such as therapeutic riding, EFP, hippotherapy, equine assisted learning, Show Team HOPE and more, go to or call 620.674.3458 or 417.345.5210. If you would like to help support the work of Horses of Hope, there are many ways you can help.


Shelly said, “It takes much more than the fees for services to keep our centers operating. As a not-for-profit 501(c) (3), we annually write grants, have major fundraisers and are always in need of dedicated volunteers.”


Horses of Hope makes a difference in people’s lives. Horses are good for the inside of a person, as Ronald Reagan said, and truly bring hope to so many.