Dreams on Horseback works to create healing connections through various programs with the assistance of equines Tinkerbell, Phillippe, Miff, Bailey, Noffy, Daisy, Smoothie and Chevy.
The therapeutic riding facility at 1416 Reynoldsburg-New Albany Road in Blacklick improves lives though horse-partnered learning, said Jennifer Hansen, executive director of Dreams.JOIN THE CONVERSATION Tweets by DreamsHorseback
Trained and certified instructors use engaging activities and games to encourage their students to solve problems, face fears and complete physical tasks, according to the facility's website. Young adults with special needs can have an opportunity to learn work and social skills needed for the workplace. And among the therapeutic riding center's newest programs is Military Connections, a program designed to help veterans adapt to life after service.
It was initiated by Pickerington resident Darlene Bell, whose husband, George, was a U.S. Army veteran and whose grandson, Nathan Dickey, died in 2010 at age 21 after military service.
Bell said Military Connections is offered in memory of her grandson.
"Nathan was a fun-loving, dedicated soldier who was thrilled to be serving his country as a member of the Ohio National Guard," Hansen said. "He was adored by his family. And they took pride in his military connections.
"Tragically, Nathan lost his life not long after his return to the states, in part due to his struggles to reconnect with civilian life."
Hansen said the devastating experience inspired Bell to take action in hopes that other families wouldn't have that pain.
Thanks to various sponsors, Military Connections has welcomed more than 100 veterans into Dreams' barn, Hansen said.
Bell and her family recently donated a $10,000 therapeutic lift in honor of her husband, who died in 2012 at age 65.
"He would love the kids and how it will impact veterans," Bell said. "This would mean a lot to him."
She said she and her family wanted to do something significant in his memory.
"He traveled a lot in his career, but he carried his family in his heart wherever he went as a member of the military," she said. "When you have a child diagnosed with autism or cerebral palsy, a loved one with dementia or a soldier who has honorably served his country and is struggling at home, it's difficult to deal with."
She said people often feel alone and overwhelmed. For the military veterans, some may have physical disabilities and injuries that make reintegration after service difficult.
"I'm reminded of a quote, 'In darkness someone turns on the light,' " she said. "Being a part of Dreams on Horseback, whether you're a side walker, horse handler or student, gives light to all of us. You can't be in a therapy riding lesson without feeling that light."
She said she considers the team at Dreams to be part of her family.
Bell said she previously had a fear of horses, but she has been a Dreams volunteer for almost three years.
"I found it so rewarding," she said. "I wanted to give back. It's an amazing place."
Dreams students range in age from 3 to 83 and are challenged by physical, cognitive and emotional disabilities, said Ellen Lee, Dreams' development director.
She said Dreams is aided by volunteers from throughout central Ohio, including Delaware, New Albany, Pataskala and Westerville.
"We have over 100 active volunteers," Lee said. "Each lesson requires three volunteers. We're always looking forward to training new people."
According to a recent program newsletter, more than 4,300 volunteer hours were donated to the therapeutic lesson program in 2017.
Lee said the new mechanical lift will make horseback riding possible for those who were excluded because of their inability to mount.
"It will also provide dignity to those for whom mounting is possible but awkward and difficult," Lee said.
Robert Fown, a U.S. Army veteran from Johnstown, recently joined the Military Connections program.
"I'm relearning how to ride after 40 some years," he said. "This is an exciting opportunity for me, and a chance to learn more calming techniques for myself by letting the horse be in control and enjoying the ride."
Fown is in a wheelchair as the result of a diving accident that broke his neck decades ago.
"I'll be using the lift to transfer out of the wheelchair onto the horse," he said. "It's less embarrassing for me to be lifted mechanically than have people pick me up and set me on the horse."
Veteran John Newman said he got involved a year ago to promote the Military Connections program with Bell.
"There are opportunities from traditional to therapeutic," he said. "We go to the VA once a month and talk about the program."
Newman said a horsemanship program is conducted on Friday nights, and a therapeutic equine-facilitated learning program is held every other Monday.
Becky Brown, the mother of Brady Penna Brown of Gahanna, who has quadriplegic cerebral palsy, said the new mechanical lift means so much.
"It means he will be able to ride every time he's here and not only if the volunteers are strong enough to lift him," she said. "We were always fortunate someone would always step up."
When he was introduced to equine therapy at a camp, he loved it so much he wanted to continue, she said.
Brown said the improvement in his health was almost immediate, adding Brady, 21, is able to maintain a sitting position.
"It strengthened everything," she said. "He was so motivated to work hard all week long so he could continue taking lessons. It has made such a difference in his life."
"It also releases stress just being around the horses," she said.
Trainer Marsha Krantz of Pickerington has worked with Penna Brown since he has been a student at Dreams, about three years.
"His progress is incredible," she said. "He could only be on the horse five minutes at a time before he was fatigued. Within six weeks of him starting, he could be on 45 minutes. He built that core strength and stamina."
"From encouraging speech to equipping students with the skills to get a job, more than 3,500 participant hours are provided each year," Hansen said.
Hansen said Dreams became a reality in 2002 by transporting horses to United Way agencies, schools and churches to provide educational programs to inner-city youth.
In 2003, founders David and Jennifer Hansen renovated a farm they named Field of Dreams, to offer quality traditional riding programs, in addition to serving as a home for the nonprofit Dreams on Horseback.
"The two symbiotic organizations shared the Blacklick farm for 15 years, providing mobile education, but could host visitors in an enriched farm setting," Hansen said.
In 2006, the Dreams staff completed certification in equine assisted learning through the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association, the international certification organization for equine-assisted learning, and launched an EAL program for youth diagnosed on the autism spectrum.
"Children who are non-responsive in traditional therapy not only learn to express themselves while interacting with our horses, but also practice problem-solving skills and communicating appropriately with peers while completing a series of tasks with the horses," Hansen said.
The founders constructed a new indoor riding arena and nine-stall barn in 2007 for an innovative educational partnership with the Gahanna-Jefferson Public School District that would provide alternative educational opportunities for at-risk youth.
Students who have cognitive or behavioral challenges that impede their learning processes practice employment and social skills while earning credit toward graduation.
The program also allows youth to develop a relationship with the facility's horses and use equine-assisted learning to gain self-awareness and learn new skills, Hansen said.
Morgan Wallace, 19, has been involved at Dreams since 2006.
"I was in the autism program and did horseback riding lessons here," she said. "I like caring for the horses and making sure they have food and water."
Wallace, a 2016 Gahanna Lincoln High School graduate, said it's relaxing for her to groom the horses.
"When I get stressed, I pet the horses and they calm me down," she said.
Wallace is studying psychology at the Newark branch of Ohio State University.
Hansen said 2011 heralded exciting research into the healing powers of horses.
"Field of Dreams welcomed the Ohio State University Veterinary and Social Sciences departments to study the impact of equine therapy on the deceleration of mental deterioration of early-onset Alzheimer's patients," she said.
Hansen said she's thrilled on a daily basis by the magic and power of the four-legged staff, as therapeutic programs have expanded with groups including Respite Connections, Community Connections and the Heritage House.
"We were thrilled in 2012 to be asked to create the only Special Olympics Equestrian Team in Franklin County," Hansen said. "The Dreams team returned from the statewide competition with four gold, three silver and one bronze medal, and a plethora of memories."
The Special Olympics team size doubled in 2013, and by 2016, the Dreams Special Olympics Team numbered 14 athletes.
In 2013, Dreams instructors became Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship certified therapeutic riding instructors.
The certification allows the therapeutic programs to help students with cognitive, physical or behavioral challenges.
"We started with three instructors, six students and 25 volunteers," Hansen said.
"Now, five years later, Dreams supports 54 weekly riding students supported by 225 volunteers and six certified therapeutic instructors," Hansen said.
Because of the success of the program with the Gahanna schools, a vocational training program for students beyond the district was created in 2014.
"Students approaching graduation practice employability skill training in a supportive, enriched atmosphere," Hansen said.
Programs have grown so much for both Dreams on Horseback and Field of Dreams that the latter moved to a second Gahanna equestrian facility in the Stepping Stone neighborhood in 2015.
This move allowed Dreams on Horseback to assume full operation of the therapeutic center that was recognized as a premier accredited center by PATH International in 2017.
Hansen said Dreams on Horseback provides a 50-percent scholarship through fundraising, and participants' families are responsible for the other half for programs.
"Our hope in 2018 is to create a scholarship fund allowing us to offer additional financial assistance to families," she said.
For more information about Dreams on Horseback programs or to volunteer, visit dreamsonhorseback.org or call 614-864-9500.