By Kathleen Swift

“Horses of Hope, like many worthy charities in the Four States, has had a very difficult 2020,” said Vallerie Sweeten, co-founder, head certified therapeutic riding/driving instructor/physical therapist assistant at Horses of Hope.

“In April 1997, a dream was born to provide equine-assisted therapeutic services in Southeast Kansas and the surrounding Four-State Area. Thousands of adults and children with both mental and physical disabilities have looked to Horses of Hope for hope and inspiration.”

With the onset of the pandemic, “nearly half of our weekly riders were unable to continue therapies at Horses of Hope because of preexisting conditions that prohibit them from participating in the equine therapy that they desperately need.

“We needed to create something right away to keep Horses of Hope alive during this COVID-19 situation. We thought telehealth would possibly work with the horses,” stated Shelly McColm, co-founder and director of Horses of Hope-Kansas and Missouri.

“Our Horses of Hope team members took that idea and created what we call telehorse opportunities for our riders. Telehorse activities help bridge the gap until the day when all our riders can return to Southeast Kansas and our farm in Southwest Missouri.

“Nothing replaces the feeling of the motion of the horse, the smell of the barn and the feeling of support in the leather saddle. But, with modern technology, we are able to take our iPads to the barn and provide our clients time with the horses.”

Sweeten explained, “We created a series of lessons to share with clients. For example, we have one on grooming, and using the iPad, we can demonstrate the tools we use and ask our clients what do we do next. We encourage them to practice the small circular arm motions we use to curry comb a horse. We’ve taken walks down the trails, too.”

McColm further explained, “For riders who are also diagnosed with a mental health disorder, Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy was made available with the aid of their horse partner and me serving as the mental health therapist at the time.”

Sweeten remarked, “We discovered that our clients were starved for the familiar faces they had come to know at the barn, and they missed the horses. The horses missed our clients, too! They would walk up to an iPad at the sound of a client’s voice and recognized their faces.

“Through the use of technology, we found a way to stay viable during the COVID-19 shutdown. As we have reopened, we continue to take many precautions, such as staff wearing masks, sanitizing tack, not using a horse back-to-back with clients, giving the horses plenty of sunshine between riders, and limiting the number of persons in the barn,” said Sweeten.

Now more than ever, Horses of Hope is relying on the generosity of the Four States to keep this invaluable service going. Sweeten said, “Our two campuses in Southeast Kansas and Southwest Missouri hold 25 highly trained horses. The minimum expense for feed, grain, hay, farrier services and veterinarian services can exceed $3,000 per horse per year. This is only if nothing else goes wrong. If you have spent any time around horses, you know that something always goes wrong.”

To help cover these expenses, the Annual Horses of Hope Gala will be held Saturday, November 14, in the Pavilion at Downstream Casino. Country singer Jason Pritchett will headline the entertainment for the evening, and a live auction will also take place.

“Downstream Casino is taking many precautions for this year’s gala in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Only 35 tables will be available this year,” said Sweeten. “Instead of our normal buffet, attendees will be served plated food at the tables. In addition, there will be hand sanitizer and other precautions in place.”

The monies raised at the Horses of Hope Gala helps keep important therapeutic riding and equine facilitated psychotherapy programs available for those with challenges.

“Horses of Hope is extremely grateful for all of the support we have in this region, as it allows us to keep hope alive for so many people in need,” said McColm.

So, mark your calendars, make your donation and be a part of extending hope to so many in the Four States.