3/7/2019 4:40:00 PM HorseFriends seeks - and often gets - miraculous outcomes
The Summerfield-based non-profit relies on volunteers, grants and donations to provide its services free-of-charge; there is a currently a waiting list of 20 would-be participants.
Photo courtesy of Brooke Pennell | HorseFriendsí horse leader Pat Ransone and sidewalkers Bryson McCullough (back) and Amy Kemper make it possible for Emma Nienaber to ride.
by ANNETTE JOYCE
Sharon Neely has witnessed countless miracles through her work with HorseFriends, a therapeutic riding program she helped establish in 2005. Take, for example, the young man in his early 40s who came to HorseFriends with a traumatic brain injury, confined to a wheelchair and suicidal. After spending time in the program, not only did he find his will to live but is now able to walk unassisted.
Then there is the mother of three boys, all on the autistic spectrum.
"The youngest had never said anything, and the mother told the volunteers she'd love to hear her son say 'I love you,'" Neely recalled. "When they got home (after one of the classes), the little boy blurted out 'I ove you, I ove you, I ove you.' That mother's excitement is still very special."
And there's Simon Bunch, who started with HorseFriends when he was about 9 years old. Diagnosed with multiple mental and emotional challenges including Asperger's and bipolar disorder, Simon's growth through the program was phenomenal. In fact, he eventually transitioned from being a participant in the program to becoming a volunteer and helping others.
"HorseFriends was a great way for him to build confidence and it gave him an alternative to participating in team sports," said Simon's mother, Lisa Bunch, who has volunteered with the organization since 2010 and serves as secretary of the board.
A faith-based organization, HorseFriends works with individuals who have special needs such as autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and traumatic brain injury - most, but not all, of them children. Through equine therapy and educational programs, the organization has been extremely successful in developing confidence, physical and emotional strength and a sense of joy for both its participants and volunteers.
Located off N.C. 150 in Summerfield, HorseFriends offers nine classes in which participants, with the help of volunteers, spend time riding therapeutically-trained horses and engaging in activities such as dropping balls into buckets and grabbing rings - activities that further enhance the therapeutic benefits of horseback riding.
What sets HorseFriends apart from similar organizations is that its services are entirely free.
"A lot of times this is the only thing these kids can do and this is what they look forward to," Neely said. "We know families are strapped financially and parents might not be able to afford anything else."
HorseFriends is able to offer its services free-of-charge thanks to a network of volunteers, grants and donations. Demand for their services is high - the organization currently has about 27 participants with another 20 on a waiting list.
Neely said the group wants to be able to work with everyone who has a need and an interest. They also want to make improvements to their facility, which they're leasing from Summerfield resident and developer David Couch, owner of Summerfield Farms.
"David and his wife, Stephanie Quayle, have been generous and supportive," Neely said.
Situated off Deboe Road, near the I-73 and N.C. 150 interchange, the property HorseFriends occupies features a large outdoor arena, which is great for offering classes when the weather is good. Unfortunately, when weather is not so good - such as the heavy amount of rainfall the area has experienced this winter - classes have to be cancelled. A covered arena would allow the group to hold classes, rain or shine.
As the organization has grown, there's also a need for more paid staff.
"We've been an all-volunteer organization from the beginning, but to grow we need to hire more people," Neely said. She noted the organization has just hired its first executive director.
To reach its goals, HorseFriends also needs more volunteers and more funding. Currently, the organization has about 60 volunteers, referred to as VIPs (Volunteers Impacting Participants). Neely said they are the "heart and soul" of the organization. Depending on their needs and abilities, each participant can require up to three VIPs during a class.
A volunteer training class is scheduled for March 23 (see details below).
"VIPs don't need any experience with horses," Neely said. "Just a willingness to help and a love for kids, the outdoors and animals."
To raise both awareness and much-needed funds, HorseFriends will hold its inaugural Boots and Buckles benefit on Sunday, April 14, from 6:30 to 9 p.m. at Summerfield Farms. This fun-filled evening will feature a live performance by Stephanie Quayle, the region's own Nashville recording artist and CMT's Next Women of Country's 2019 Inductee. A limited number of tickets are on sale on a first-come basis until the event is sold out. Each $75 ticket includes music, activities, a silent and live auction, hors d'oeuvres, and wine and beer.
Along with the concert, the auctions are much anticipated events and the fundraising committee has gone above and beyond to put together an array of items that are sure to appeal to attendees. Horseback riding lessons, a tennis and swim club family membership, wine tastings, a four-day cruise for two and a guitar signed by Quayle are only a sample of what's available.
"This is the first gala event of this magnitude that HorseFriends has undertaken," Bunch said. "We have expanded by leaps and bounds here in Summerfield and want to expand even further in order to fully serve as many special-needs individuals as possible."
The fundraising goal for the evening is $75,000 and Bunch invites everyone to come out, have a wonderful time and support a great cause.
want to volunteer?
Volunteer training session
Saturday, March 23, 12 to 2 p.m.
HorseFriends, 5920 Khaki Place, Summerfield
want to go?
Boots and Buckles Benefit
Sunday, April 14, 6:30 to 9 p.m.
Summerfield Farms, 3203 Pleasant Ridge Road, Summerfield