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Sherry Hall – Therapeutic Riding

Sherry Hall marvels at how God took the assorted pieces in her life, arranged them for her, and showed her what to do. “It was hard and scary, and I didn’t think I was capable of making it happen,” she reflects.  Proudly guiding me through the new and improved, brand new barn in Defuniak Springs, Florida, Sherry points to a wooden sign hanging in the office – We are seldom qualified for the things God calls us to do.

For people of all capabilities, therapeutic horseback riding provides mental, physical, and emotional stimulation.  Therapy and rehab exercises can be difficult and dull for those with depression, epilepsy, autism, and down’s syndrome.  But watching the big smiles and the excited faces at Grace Rides is all the proof you need –  riding a gentle, loving horse can help kids and adults make remarkable progress. 

Grace Rides Equine Therapy

On her family’s working farm in northwest Florida, Sherry grew up riding horses and helping out at her mom’s special education classes.  Armed with a trio of degrees from Florida State –  Clinical Psychology, Rehabilitation Counseling,  and Law – Sherry initially advised high school grads with spinal cord injuries who wanted to attend college and be independent.

“There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.”  – Winston Churchill

When her five horseback-riding daughters “flew the nest,” Sherry longed to do something special, and helpful, with horses. After 25 years of practicing law, she wanted to give back.  She gradually saw how her life’s “pieces” might all fit together – “my counseling background, law degree, experience assisting people of varying abilities.” 

Sherry and her husband, Steve, founded Grace Rides, a 501(c)(3) equine therapeutic riding center, in 2008.  Operating on a “postage-stamp sized piece of property” in Niceville, Florida, Sherry admits she was scared to death and didn’t think she was qualified to undertake the project. But she just kept taking the next, right step.

Grace Rides Equine Therapy Defuniak Springs Florida

As we watch the pre-teen riders – spotters and handlers beside them – mount their horses for this afternoon’s lesson, Sherry fondly gestures to one of her young students.  Eight years ago, when Nelson* began working with Sherry and the Grace Ride instructors, he could not lift his leg high enough to get on a horse.

Other types of therapy and exercises had not interested him.  But riding the horse was something he wanted to do, and this desire unlocked a new motivation in Nelson. “If they want to get on a horse, we can help them accomplish amazing things,” says Sherry.

“No hour of life is wasted that is spent in the saddle.” – Winston Churchill

Kids and adults with spina bifida and cerebral palsy and multiple sclerosis and brain injuries “open up around the horses” at Grace Rides, Sherry explains. The excitement – and fun   of riding a horse around a tree-lined oval makes them feel good about themselves.  They learn patience, responsibility, and compassion as they groom, feed, and ride the sweet-natured animals.

Grace Rides Horse Therapy

Sherry points out the simple rhythm of the horse’s steps loosens tight muscles and strengthens muscle tone.  The warmth from the horses’ bodies helps with circulation and digestion.

The instructors run the young riders through a series of games this afternoon.  Lifting their arms like an airplane, passing batons, and smiling constantly, the pupils work on their hand-eye coordination, their left and their right, and balance.  Being outside, interacting with animals, playing games with no judgement…. What better way to build fine and gross motor skills?

Therapeutic Horseback Riding

For all the students, including the group of veterans riding earlier today, “consistency is key,” Sherry stresses.   It is important to ride the same horse with the same horse savvy volunteers and certified instructor every week.   According to Sherry, “Consistent social groups increase conversation, adaptability, and cooperation.”  The riders develop respect and love and compassion for their beautiful, friendly animals, and this creates confidence.

Stroking Emily, a black mare, I ask Sherry how she acquired “the equine helpers”  with the gentle, accommodating temperaments and dispositions.   Of her 18 horses and lone donkey (Nestor), many were donated by families with kids leaving home or heading off to college.  Others have been rescued by animal lovers – or Sherry herself.

Feeding My Horse at Grace Rides Horse Therapy

Originally terrified of Sherry, or any adult coming near her,  Alice was a horrifyingly sad example of abuse.  “But we brought her to the farm anyway,” says Sherry. “I couldn’t leave her in the situation.”  Putting her in a corral, Sherry worriedly watched as kids ran over to greet the new arrival.  “Amazingly – she loved the children touching her. And, thanks to a lot of hard work, she now likes me too!”

Equine Therapy Grace Rides

“Whoa-ing their horses” and wrapping up the games and exercises in the riding ring, the riders stretch waaaay over to give their equine buddies a big hug. It’s now time to feed their friends apples, brush them, and say goodbye for the week.   And I am guessing, based on the looks on their faces, they will start talking about the next riding session as soon as they leave!

*names have been changed for this story

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“Sherry Hall – Therapeutic Riding”

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