Deklan Corrigan, a first-grader at La France Elementary School in Pendleton, with Hannah. Photo by Will Crooks

When Deklan Corrigan first visited Eden Farms, a horse-boarding barn in Marietta, a year ago, his mother, Traci Corrigan, was unsure how he would respond. Her son, who at the time was 5 years old, was often nonverbal and reserved, and Traci wondered whether the new, unfamiliar stimuli would make Deklan nervous or agitated.

But her concerns were soon alleviated, because Deklan was instantly drawn to the horses he encountered at the barn. And when it was time for him to ride for the first time, he eagerly got into the saddle. After that initial visit, Deklan immediately told his mom he wanted to go horseback riding again, and he also asked for a cowboy hat.

Traci was stunned by her son’s reaction. “He’s never asked for anything before,” she says.

Deklan is one of many individuals across the Upstate who have been positively impacted by Happy Hooves, Eden Farms’ 501(c)(3) nonprofit that offers therapeutic riding and equine-related therapy for individuals with special needs and at-risk youth. The program, which is accredited by the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International, is one of five centers in South Carolina and the only one in the Upstate.

While Eden Farms offers riding lessons and boarding for profit, Happy Hooves is at the core of the barn’s mission and “the whole reason we’re here,” says Becky Sweeney, barn manager.

Becky Sweeney, barn manager of Eden Farms, with Tonka. Photo by Will Crooks

About 17 years ago, Sweeney’s mother, Amy Goudelock, felt “called by God to open up this barn,” Sweeney says. Goudelock, a lifelong horse enthusiast and a nurse on a neonatal intensive care unit, often saw children who were once in the NICU experience ongoing complications.

“She knew from her medical background that there had to be something that could be done [to help these children]. While the clinical setting is needed and effective, horses could also be used,” Sweeney says. And from that initial idea, Happy Hooves was formed.

In addition to offering therapeutic riding lessons, Happy Hooves has a School at the Barn program, which is currently financed through private donations and grants provided by Dabo and Kathleen Swinney’s All In Team Foundation and Helen’s Hugs, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting therapeutic riding.

“The horses seem to calm them and make them focus in ways others can’t. There’s a connection you can’t get any other way.” ­Vicki Bertsch, volunteer, Happy Hooves

It was through School at the Barn that Deklan, now a first-grader at La France Elementary in Pendleton, was first able to visit Eden Farms. This school year, special-needs students and at-risk youth from seven schools across the Upstate are participating in the program.

“It’s a great, fun, out-of-the-box experience,” Sweeney says. “They can do their therapies on horseback, and they just think they’re playing games and having fun, but we’re working on the recommendations of parents, therapists, and doctors.”

The benefits gained from therapeutic riding differ among riders and depend on their challenges and needs. For example, according to PATH International, riders who have physical disabilities can “show improvement in flexibility, balance, and muscle strength,” because “horseback riding rhythmically moves the rider’s body in a manner similar to a human gait.”

As perceptive animals, horses are also able to forge bonds with individuals who have emotional challenges. The unique human-horse connection “can lead to increased confidence, patience, and self-esteem,” reports PATH International.

La France Elementary student Xavier Sullivan with volunteers Wendy Lowry and Mary Hannah McKittrick. Photo by Will Crooks

Happy Hooves’ therapeutic riding instructors and volunteers have seen the impact of the program firsthand.

For volunteer Wendy Lowry, helping with School at the Barn has been “very gratifying.” She says it’s rewarding to see students progress between visits, and she has witnessed children experience improved balance and greater confidence through riding.

“The horses seem to calm them and make them focus in ways others can’t,” adds volunteer Vicki Bertsch. “There’s a connection you can’t get any other way.”

Although each school group visit varies depending on the students participating, School at the Barn is typically split into three segments: classroom time, therapeutic riding, and equine-assisted learning. PATH International defines the latter as using interaction between humans and horses as a vehicle to “teach critical life skills such as trust, respect, honesty, and communication.”

“We cover issues of trust and bullying and solving problems not using violence, and even stuff like eye contact and manners,” Sweeney says. “We feel like we can get their attention with the horses. … The whole point is to improve their lives out in the everyday world and help them improve as best they can.”

La France Elementary student Alex Spado and Zacchaeus. Photo by Will Crooks

Holly Rhodes, a special-education teacher for kindergarten through second grade at La France Elementary, says that through participating in School at the Barn, she has noticed improved confidence among her students.

At first, Rhodes says, some of her students were timid, but after a while they would not only touch the horses but ride them, too. And the increased confidence that stemmed from being in control of their environment and bonding with large animals translated to her classroom, she adds, as students were less over-stimulated or nervous in response to light and noise.

“The kids who come out here really do benefit, and you never know if it’s something that’ll give them short-term benefits or that will plant a seed and help them in the long run,” Sweeney says. “While horses are beautiful and can run and jump fast, they can do more, too. By pairing the kids up with the horses, a lot of great things can happen.”

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