Hope on Horseback
Wearing a contagious smile that seemed to warm the whole barn on a blustery afternoon, four-year-old Elisha Smith shouted “Paddy Bear, Paddy Bear” as his father, Omer, carried him through the stables at Storybook Farm in Opelika, Ala.Although the weather prevented him from riding his favorite pony on this particular day, Elisha was content to groom Paddington Bear’s coat and dream of next week when he once again would have the opportunity to saddle up.Elisha, who has cerebral palsy, is one of about 200 children who will benefit from therapeutic horseback riding this year at Storybook Farm, a non-profit organization that ministers to children with disabilities, chronic illnesses and bereavement issues.Shana Smith, Elisha’s mother, said Storybook Farm has made a big difference in her son’s life.”It’s his ball game, his field trip,” she said. “You should hear how he talks about it, how he counts the days of the week until he can see Paddy Bear. It’s very beneficial for his trunk strength. He can sit up for longer periods of time when he rides the pony. It’s just all-around good medicine.”Founded in 2002 by Dena and Mike Dougherty, Storybook Farm provides its services free of charge, thanks to the generous support of donors and the help of more than 400 Auburn University (AU) students and others who volunteer their time.Dena, who has been an avid horse rider since the age of 8, said she got the idea for Storybook Farm after reading an article about how horses provide emotional and physical help for those who are hurting.”It was God inspired–I’m not smart enough to come up with this on my own,” she said. “I believe God has a sense of humor because, growing up, I (sometimes) wished I could sing, dance or had a gift that God could use. The article prompted me to think of using (horses) to help children with terminal illnesses and grief issues. All of a sudden it just clicked. What a great way to illustrate God’s love to people and use my love of horses.”Dena explained that the rhythmic nature of the horse’s gait and the animal’s body heat provide therapy for the young riders who visit Storybook Farm. Other physical benefits include improvement in balance, posture, coordination, reflexes, fine and gross motor skills and hand-eye coordination. During the sessions, the children play basketball, weave through mazes and cones and even go on treasure hunts–all on horseback.Just as important, the children develop responsibility, patience and compassion as they interact with the horses. Perhaps a quote by Winston Churchill on Storybook Farm’s website says it best. “The outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man.”Apparently, others are embracing this idea because the Doughertys have witnessed an outpouring of support from the community since beginning their ministry. Charter Bank has been a major contributor, and customers of the bank helped Storybook Farm obtain an additional $5,000 by voting the farm one of their top-three charities in the Auburn-Opelika area. In addition, 12 different businesses and individuals have each given $1,000 to sponsor a horse or pony at Storybook Farm while others have donated books, supplies and building materials.Mike said one of the farm’s first allies was Hayley Redd Development Co., which held fund raisers to benefit the charity. Some of the more memorable donations, though, have been gestures made by people who were touched by Storybook Farm’s mission.”On Christmas Eve, we got a call asking us if we were going to be here for a while. A little later, a couple came up. Rather than buying Christmas presents for themselves, they donated the money to us,” Mike said.Volunteers also have played a major role in the success of Storybook Farm. Farmhouse fraternity and Alpha Kappa Psi, the business fraternity, both have adopted Storybook Farm as a service project. In addition, the AU football team attended a party last year for the kids at Storybook Farm, and Mike said the farm is one of the most popular places for AU students to complete required service learning hours. Kim Smith, who earned her degree in animal sciences at Auburn, is the volunteer coordinator at Storybook Farm. A volunteer herself, Kim said working with the children is a labor of love. “I love teaching individuals with disabilities, and I love to be able to help children progress mentally, physically and socially,” Kim said. “It’s a ministry for me. My time out here is worthwhile because we are helping them discover things and minister to their needs.”Kim explained that children participating in therapeutic riding at Storybook Farm attend sessions once a week for six to eight weeks. Each session is limited to four or five riders, who must have medical release forms signed by their doctors. Three volunteers are assigned to each rider, one leading the horse and two side-walkers. In addition to riding, the children learn how to groom and feed their mounts. They do arts and crafts and get to meet mentors from the community such as teachers, police officers, firefighters and veterinarians. Storybook Farm also has a lending library of more than 1,000 books, which the children are encouraged to check out while enrolled in the program.In fact, books and learning are such an important part of the farm’s mission, that all of the horses and ponies are named after “storybook” characters. Besides Paddington Bear, there are Gulliver’s Travels, Robin Hood, Sherlock Holmes, Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer, Johnny Appleseed, Humpty Dumpty, Mother Goose, Oliver Twist and Stuart Little.Children with disabilities, illnesses and grief issues, however, aren’t the only ones benefiting from the unconditional love of these animals. Storybook Farm also hosts special education and alternative school classes from the Auburn and Opelika city school systems.Dena has seen children transformed by their experiences at Storybook Farm. Sadly, she’s also had to face the fact that some who are terminally ill will not return to ride again. “It’s hard,” she said. “But my philosophy is that we can’t control the reasons the children come here, but we can enhance their time while they are here.”That’s what Storybook is all about. It’s an opportunity to let them just be kids and not have the burdens they are coping with every day,” Dena said. “Here, the kids are special because they are special to us, but they are not disabled.”Storybook Farm is open to children ages 2-18. Once a child participates in the program, she is always welcomed back for yearly events. On days when they’re not attending a riding session, the children can email their favorite horse. Dena said some of the children stay in touch with their horse and the Doughertys long after they’ve completed their therapeutic sessions.”They get attached to us, and we get attached to them,” she explained. “We have not had a child that didn’t want to participate again. Most referrals come from parents. I think the greatest testimonial of our ministry is that parents would want to tell their friends about it.”Storybook Farm is a North American Riding for the Handicapped Association member. For more information, visit www.story-book-farm.org or call (334) 444-5966.