The Horse as Healer

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We can all identify with Winston Churchill’s quote “There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.” Competitive and recreational riders alike know this is true, and now through the evolution of therapeutic riding and equine-assisted learning, scores of others are discovering the therapeutic, healing and enlightening powers that horses offer.

Equine-assisted activities and therapy programs usually operate as non-profit organizations, though there are many that function as a for-profit business. What does it take to run a successful non-profit organization that offers therapeutic horsemanship programs? In many ways, it is the same qualities that it takes to run a successful business, only different.

Be Professional

Windridge is a premier accredited center with the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH, Intl). Margo Dewkett, founder and executive director of Windridge Therapeutic Equestrian Center of East Texas, Inc., established the center in 1988 (http://www.windridgetexas.org/index.php?page_id=13 for videos). Windridge sees 124 adults and children each week, has 22 horses, seven employees and approximately 70 weekly volunteers. All staff members are PATH certified instructors.

Dewkett is an ex-jockey and racehorse trainer, who ran her own operation. “Managing a profitable racehorse training and breeding establishment, prior to operating a non-profit organization, helped me immensely to develop and manage Windridge. I learned business principles and management skills that were important to operating a successful business. I also learned how to do more with less without giving up principled business practices and quality equine training and care.

“Non-profits are different than commercial ventures in that the organization is not owned by the founder, but rather belongs to the community, governed by a board of directors and is operated by an executive director, staff members and volunteers. The non-profit may seek and receive financial and material donations. Some of the ways that non-profits and commercial ventures are similar is that it takes three to five years to bring the organization to the forefront, must operate in the black to survive, function with ethical business principles and manage a professional staff.”

Dewkett continues, “The early years of a non-profit can be very difficult for several reasons. For example, a Catch 22 may occur. Donors typically support non-profits that will prosper rather than be unsuccessful. They know many non-profits do not succeed because of inferior business practices. Donors may wait to see if the newly-founded non-profit becomes established. On the other hand, the non-profit needs financial support to provide services. An additional concern founders face is the struggle between their heart’s desire to see the children ride the horses versus the time and effort it takes to establish the center’s business model. I can’t stress enough the importance to form a business model from the beginning. In our first year, Windridge had two major donors step forward to offer their support because they saw we had good business principles and practices in place.”

“People give to people” is very true in the non-profit sector. “Donors typically support non-profits that are governed and managed proficiently and provide a much needed service to the community, says Dewkett. “Equine-assisted activities and therapy programs are essential to children and adults with disabilities and mental health concerns. Overall, communities benefit from the existence of centers that offers therapeutic horsemanship programs. Nonetheless these centers, for-profit or non-profit, should be affiliated with a national organization such as PATH Intl, be governed by a skillful board of directors and operated by a professional staff. The center’s personnel are responsible to provide quality services to program participants, educate and manage volunteers and horses, as well as operate with effective, ethical business principles and practices.”

Find a Niche

Finding a niche audience can be as important with a non-profit as it is with a commercial venture. Back in the Saddle Equine Therapy Center (BITS ETC), founded ten years ago by Pauline Meridien, is a small program with seven horses and two staff (www.bitsetc.org). BITS ETC has found that focusing on a particular disability allows them to individualize their offerings to better serve that population. With the meteoric rise in autism diagnoses, they felt it important to gain more expertise in this area, and so became licensed in the SpiritHorse Autism Intervention, as developed by Charles Fletcher of SpiritHorse International in Texas. BITS ETC also recognized that returning veterans and uniformed professionals provide a unique challenge, unlike those faced by more traditional therapeutic riding clients.

Pauline shares her challenges saying, “Developing an effective Board of Directors, finding funding for our programs and finding volunteers are ongoing challenges, as they are for many non-profits. We have discovered a wonderful outcome from our Veteran’s program in that some become volunteers for the autism program and ambassadors for BITS ETC as well.”

Meridien continues, “We’re now able to operate year-round because of the donation of a riding dome. Unfortunately, our riding dome was hit by a tornado, but the PR about that resulted in donations for its repair and more awareness of our program! We continue to move forward and grow, despite the challenges.”

Therapy On the Side

The Shea Center is one of the largest centers in the United States, with a $2.5 million annual operating budget, seeing 650 to 700 clients a year, utilizing 26 horses, more than 200 weekly volunteers, and 12 full-time staff (click here to see some of the center’s success stories:?http://www.sheacenter.org/success-stories.php). When asked her thoughts about why a commercial riding facility might want to consider offering therapeutic services, Executive Director Dana Butler-Moburg says, “If you are running a good commercial riding business and you want to run a great one, providing therapeutic riding can be a means to achieve that. If you want to be more deeply involved with your community, a therapeutic program can help you to achieve that as well. The more that you can show that your equine facility is part of the fabric of the community, the greater your ability to succeed. However, a healthy non-profit requires clients, volunteers, donors and supporters, and these folks come from wide backgrounds. As you build these relationships you are working your way more deeply into your community.”

Butler-Moburg continues, “Therapeutic riding and commercial riding operations are distinctly different. Consider, for example, riding instruction. It is harder to do therapeutic instruction than instruction for able-bodied individuals. The therapeutic instructor certification that PATH Intl. offers is good training for therapeutic instructors, but can also be great training for instructors of able-bodied riders. The level of safety for PATH accredited therapeutic riding programs is also quite high, and I’ve seen commercial operations that have raised their level of safety as a result of offering therapeutic services.”

Whether going full-time or offering up a portion of your equine business for therapeutic riding, it pays to do your homework, but the rewards can be immeasurable.

Kay Green, CEO of Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH, formerly NARHA), provides an overview of the organizations growth. “We were established in 1969. In 1970 we had one center and one member. We grew steadily, and in 1989 we had 433 centers and 731 members. In 1990, the American with Disabilities Act was passed, changing language from handicapped to disabled, and raising the general public’s awareness. By 1994, we had over 500 centers and over 2,400 members. Today we have 7,500 members, 4,300 instructors and 842 centers. As further demonstration of the need, 296 of PATH Intl. Centers have waiting lists, with almost 6,000 individuals on the waiting list. Not only does this demonstrate the growth in therapeutic riding, but also the growth in how many equine professionals do business.” For more information about PATH accreditation, go to www.pathintl.org.

Lisa Derby Oden has been providing business development, marketing, and nonprofit consulting services to the horse industry since 1995. Oden is author of "Growing Your Horse Business" and "Bang for Your Buck: Making $ense of Marketing for Your Horse Business, " and partner in the CD series “Inventing Your Horse Career.” She can be reached at: (603) 878-1694; email at Lisa@blueribbonconsulting.com; or visit her website at www.blueribbonconsulting.com.