A Horse is a Horse, Of Course…

But a therapist, too …?

As Knoxville follows the trends of growing cities across the country, it becomes more diverse in the way it serves our community. Whether in regard to food and entertainment, art and music, healthcare and education or religion and therapeutics, Knoxville’s societal leaders address several facets of service in order to better equip individuals to help one another. A burgeoning branch in the particular field of therapy and mental health can be found on a hilltop on the outskirts of Hardin Valley at a farm called Shining Light Equestrian.

Drive up the gravel road between two wooden fence lines leading to the barn atop the farm’s 17-acre property, and you’ll find yourself in the midst of an equestrian oasis. SLE is an equine-facilitated, therapeutic riding farm with a current herd of nearly 20 horses. Unlike similar therapeutic centers, SLE offers lessons not only to those with disabilities, but also to anyone who is willing and eager to hop atop a horse and learn how to ride.

Horseback riding, at its core, is a calming, sensory-input activity due to the natural movements felt while sitting on the back of a horse. In therapeutic riding, this multi-dimensional movement of a horse is sometimes used as a means of calming even the most anxious of riders and of bringing them into a place of peace, self-awareness and growth. Such movements are speculated to be incredibly beneficial to the rider in several other ways, as well, including mobility, posture and balance.

Sara McGinniss, founder and certified PATH (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship) instructor, lives nearby and runs SLE with her husband, Jeff. McGinniss has been a certified therapeutic riding instructor and equine specialist in mental health and learning for more than 10 years, focusing her passion at SLE since its founding in 2011. She has experienced what she describes as countless miracles as a result of relationships she has helped to forge between horses and students at the farm.

“A teenage girl from a dysfunctional background, including foster care, came to our program,” McGinniss says. “The first few weeks, she was apprehensive, withdrawn, had very low self-esteem and [was] crippled with fear. She repeatedly talked back, despite what explanation was given for the activity or exercise. Her negative attitude and chip on her shoulder hindered learning until one particular day.

“The activity addressed how we need to persevere despite challenges. The pony she chose was Mini Wheat, [and] she only chose because it was her best friend’s favorite. The pony was defiant and continuously turned into the center, wanting to be lazy and quit.

“When the girl asserted herself, prompting the pony [to] move away and follow directions, the pony reared up, pinned her ears and tossed her head as [if] to say, ‘No, I don’t care what you want me to do. I’ll do it my way or not at all!’ The girl said, ‘That wasn’t very nice.’ And I said, ‘Nope, and not fun to work with either, right?’

“Eventually, with patience and determination, the task was completed. During the closing discussion, I asked each participant, ‘What did your horse teach you today?’ With total confidence, she burst in, giving her answer: ‘I need to get rid of my [bad] attitude!’ This is a monumental statement from a teenage girl who was enlightened by a defiant pony in spite of many attempts by humans in her life.”

Not only does McGinniss and her crew of volunteers experience these miracles every day, perhaps the greatest reward is given to the parents and guardians of the participants who visit SLE for their weekly lessons. One particular parent, who has had her twin boys enrolled at SLE for since its inception, can attest to the innumerable ways in which her sons have grown and have become more independent, capable and comfortable with whom they are as individuals thanks to the time they’ve spent on horseback.

Collecting her impressions of the program and the lessons that it taught her sons, that parent created the following:

Healing in time of great need

Overcoming obstacles

Regaining self-worth

Securing confidence

Eliminating doubt/fear

Teaching responsibility

Helping oneself & others

Excitement in learning & teaching

Reassurance of learned knowledge

Achieving goals

Positive reinforcement

Yearning for the next visit to the horse farm

Although the majority of participants at SLE are using equine-assisted activities and therapies for managing some sort of mental disability, there are many other forms of ailments for which this form of therapy has shown to be effective. Therapeutic riding has helped to treat veterans of war experiencing post-traumatic stress, survivors of abuse/childhood trauma and survivors of sexual abuse. People of all ages with Down syndrome, various autism/spectrum disorders and ADHD also have benefitted from equine interaction facilitated by certified professionals. So, too, have children who struggle with disruptive behaviors.

Something beautiful about partnering with large, strong animals for such an intimate therapeutic benefit is the level of trust that develops between the person and the horse once each party realizes that there is something to be learned from the other.

SLE operates on the pillars of safety, laughter, community and devotion to success. McGinniss, along with Jeff, the group of volunteers and the entire SLE herd, work as a driving force toward a more prominent awareness of the benefits for all, as well as a newfound understanding of the gentle yet powerful healing experienced through a relationship with a horse.

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