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Heartland Horse Heroes: Therapeutic riding helps local children

Heartland Horse Heroes, headquartered out of Sprouse’s Corner Ranch in Buckingham County, is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit which impacts the lives of countless special needs individuals and at-risk youth through the astounding treatment of equine therapeutic riding.

Through the power of community and volunteerism, the center has blossomed into a horseback haven, but the nonprofit’s roots lead back to an organization better known for whiskers and wagging tails than hooves.

According to LaRue Dowd, executive director of Heartland Horse Heroes, the center actually got its start a little over two decades ago when a nurse named Amy Allison began a nonprofit called Healing Paws and Claws which provided dog- and cat-focused pet therapy in central and Southside Virginia.

Dowd said many clients who enjoyed the program also expressed interest in therapy through horses.

After extensive research, the organization was transformed into Heartland Horse Heroes, a name it still bears over 20 years later.

After a year and a half, Heartland Horse Heroes achieved its PATH (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship) accreditation, and in 2010, the decision was made to open a therapeutic riding center at Sprouse’s Corner Ranch in Buckingham County.

Eventually, Dowd became executive director of the organization and now oversees its operations.

Dowd explained Heartland Horse Heroes was fortunate enough about 10 years ago to be approached by the Buckingham County Public Schools system regarding hosting special needs students for therapeutic riding sessions. For the last decade, special needs Buckingham elementary and primary students venture out to the ranch 1-2 times a week in the spring and fall semesters.

Dowd said that while at Heartland Horse Heroes, the children spend 50% of the time in the arena riding horses and 50% of the time in the classroom studying horse-related teachings while also working on their Individualized Education Programs (IEPs).

Throughout its lifetime, Heartland Horse Heroes has worked with a variety of organizations, including Longwood Speech, Hearing, & Learning Services and the Longwood Therapeutic Recreation department.

Something that has also made a big impact on the center, Dowd added, is a philanthropy group at the local Hampden-Sydney College. Each year, Dowd said, a group of students work with the organization at different levels, from the Heartland Horse Heroes Board of Directors to the accounting department, to learn the ropes and understand the tasks that go into building and maintaining a nonprofit.

At the end of the semester, students write a grant which they then submit to their class in order to help Heartland Horse Heroes in a variety of ways. Dowd said the grant program and student volunteers have helped to make some major upgrades to the facility, including things like bathrooms, a seating area outside the arena, heating and air conditioning in classrooms and more.

Three years ago, students also wrote a program grant to help Heartland Horse Heroes begin to offer its services to elementary and primary students in the Cumberland County school system, so now the nonprofit is able to provide therapeutic riding to two different local schools.

In addition to school students, Heartland Horse Heroes has also for the last 10 years offered riding lessons for private individuals or groups of any age who were released by a doctor to participate in horse riding activities. The organization also works with at-risk youth and has programs specifically targeted towards benefiting those types of students. Just prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Heartland Horse Heroes received a grant from the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation to do an at-risk student group program, although the coronavirus has stalled that program for the time being.

The center also received a grant from the Christopher Reeve foundation for a wheelchair lift in order to help accommodate riders with mobility issues. The ranch also features wheelchair ramps with coverings on top. Wheelchair-accessible bathrooms are also available at the ranch.

The therapeutic riding sessions, Dowd said, are taught by two PATH-certified riding instructors: herself and Lynn Owen, an emergency room night shift manager with an education in working with students and their special needs.

When asked about the benefits of therapeutic riding, Dowd explained many of the students Heartland Horse Heroes works with cannot always communicate in a typical way. Working with a horse, she said, can make for an easier connection, helping students to understand and sense the feelings of other living beings, including the aspects of equine behavior.

She added students know their time spent in the arena is a reward, and that helps to encourage good behavior and the completion of schoolwork.

But the therapy isn’t just helpful for emotional and social reasons. Working with the horses, Dowd highlighted, can make for excellent physical therapy for some students. As core strength is a huge aspect of horse riding, many students are able to build muscle strength during sessions which aids them in completing everyday tasks such as transfering from a wheelchair to a toilet seat or desk at school.

Additionally, the hip movements associated with a horse’s gait mimic the walking of a human, helping to train the body and develop a better walking motion.

Another great part of the therapeutic riding program is that students are often able to be joined during lessons by professionals who help them work on other goals, including speech and learning specialists. Students are able to make headway in speech therapy and other lessons while remaining calm and engaged during therapeutic riding.

Recently, Heartland Horse Heroes has established a partnership with Longwood Life, a two-year non degree post-secondary certificate program run by Longwood University for individuals with intellectual disabilities. Through the program, students ages 18-25 gain the skills for independent living in a college community setting with college-age peers.

Haley Auto in Farmville will sponsor the Longwood Life students to come out for a session at the ranch.

Although COVID-19 halted much of the ranch’s typical activities due to health concerns surrounding the pandemic, Dowd has been going weekly to the Lonesome Dove Equestrian Center in Powhatan to help with therapeutic riding sessions for veterans and first responders, something she hopes Heartland Horse Heroes may be able to pursue in the future.

Sprouse’s Corner Ranch currently has 30 horses. Of those, approximately five are used for therapeutic riding, as it takes a very special horse to do the job. Equine therapy horses, Dowd explained, have to be very well-socialized and able to tolerate things like students who may have extra energy, meltdowns or may even be prone to seizures.

In addition to the horses, the organization also has a miniature horse and two Shetland ponies, and students who may have a fear of large animals are able to easily start with the little ones before moving up to the big leagues.

Dowd lives with her family at the ranch and owns the farm. In a normal year, her time not spent doing therapy riding would be spent doing horse shows, putting on summer camps and offering typical riding lessons.

Growing up, horses played a big role in Dowd’s life and often helped her through some tough times. Now, she is able to show children how connecting with horses can help them in their own way.

Three and a half years ago, Dowd gave birth to a daughter born with down syndrome who is now starting to participate in therapeutic riding lessons as well. Her speech therapist often joins her during her lessons.

When asked about her aspirations for the future of the ranch, Dowd said she hopes Heartland Horse Heroes will be able to return to its pre-pandemic operation levels. Additionally, she hopes to add more volunteers to the program and has dreams of expanding to offer services to middle and high school students. She also hopes to arrange for an at-risk youth program with local schools.

Additionally, Dowd is working toward obtaining status as an Equine Specialist in Mental Health Learning, another PATH accreditation.

Dowd said Heartland Horse Heroes is excited to come back in the fall. Volunteers and students alike are excited to get back in the saddle again.