“Horses with Hearts” aims to help special needs children

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. (AP) — What began nine years ago as a mission to help one child, blind and wheelchair-bound due to cancer, ride a horse has grown into a program that has helped hundreds of special needs residents throughout the Eastern Panhandle.

Established nine years ago, Horses with Hearts is a nonprofit organization that provides equine-assisted activities for those with special needs, whether physical, mental or emotional. The organization’s mission to provide a recreational activity and foster confidence for residents with special needs began from the desire to make a difference in one child’s life.

“The little girl who we founded the program for, she died in 2006. The goal of getting her on a horse never happened, but because of her, this program has reached so many. We started with one horse and one rider. Today, we have eight horses in the program and about 40 riders (per semester),” said co-founder Kay Barkwill.

On June 26, Horses with Hearts broke ground on its new 30-acre location in Martinsburg, realizing a decade-long dream.

Since 2005, Horses with Hearts has boarded its horses and operated from Homestead Farms, but in 2013, Trinity United Methodist Church donated 30 acres to the nonprofit to build its own facility.

With the majority of the organization funded through donations and grants, the new facility will be built in stages as funding becomes available. The first phase of construction will include fencing for the pasture, a run-through for the horses and water.

The first phase will be built in 40 days.

Eventually, Burkwill and co-founder Cathy Dodson envision a $1 million complex that will house a climate-controlled indoor arena, classrooms, stalls, an observation area, a playroom and offices.

Burkwill and Dodson also plan for the program to eventually be full-time. Currently, the program operates three nights a week from April to July and September to August. With the new facility, the program will also transition from entirely volunteer-run, about 70 volunteers per semester, to having a few staff positions.

“Our goal is to have kids coming out during their school day as part of their school curriculum and veterans coming out as part of their rehabilitation. It could reach the (Berkeley) Senior Center. I would love to see dementia patients coming out and spending the day petting or riding,” Barkwill said.

Through the program, Barkwill said riders gain confidence, have fun, encounter positive social interaction, improve memory and learning skills and increase coordination.

“I had one mother say she liked this program because when her son comes here, it’s all about him. That’s something that all the volunteers know, that it’s all about the kids,” Barkwill said.

“A lot of parents have been told that their kids can’t do anything and they can’t participate in an activity that their brother and sister could come watch and cheer for them. Now, these kids are doing something, and their parents and brother and sister come and cheer for them and clap for them,” Dodson said.

Not only does the program have personal benefits for riders but it also provides physical benefits, Barkwill said.

“A horse’s gait is the closest gait to a human walk. So when you’re sitting on a horse, your body’s using all of the muscles and everything that it needs to walk. You build core muscles and strength, so kids with cerebral palsy or spina bifida and other disorders who don’t normally have core stability, they build that when they’re on the horse,” Barkwill said.

With the success and impact the program has had, Barkwill and Dodson are eager to be able to open the new facility and expand its outreach in the community.

With the grand opening ceremony already planned, Horses with Hearts is still actively fundraising to accomplish phase one. To build the pasture, the organization must install $40,000 worth of fencing to properly provide for the horses.

To date, the Eastern West Virginia Community Foundation has provided a $10,000 grant for the fencing, and the remainder is being generated through community donations. Community members can purchase an eight-foot section of fence and, once installed, that section will bear a plaque in honor or memory of an individual.

More information on Horses with Hearts or how to donate to the program and new facility is available at the organization’s website, http://www.horseswithhearts.com.

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