“I am a speech-language pathologist and special education teacher. I taught in the public school system for 20 years, the last 10 in Fairhope. It got harder and harder with the paperwork taking away from the work I love. I am an animal person, and it has always been my dream to combine equine therapy and working with kids with special needs. I lived in Lake Forest and started the program at their small neighborhood stable. We moved to land outside of Fairhope and opened Willow Creek Farm.
My granddad was a jockey and a trainer, so my mom grew up on the horse farm. I heard stories about that and always wanted a horse. When I turned 40, my husband bought me a horse for my birthday. He didn’t know what he was doing because now I am never inside.
I started giving equine therapy lessons with my friend, Lisa Austin. We were both school speech pathologists and worked with kids with autism and language disorders. Some were completely non-verbal. We barely made enough to feed the horses, but we loved it.
The program has become a retirement home for great old horses in their mid-to late-twenties. Most of them were once championship barrel racers. They are amazing therapy horses because they have been hauled all over the world. They are smart with a great disposition and read their riders exceptionally well. But they are high maintenance because they’re old. Caring for these horses is expensive, and we work 24/7 to keep them and the farm in good shape. I turned 50 this year, and farm work is not for the faint of heart.
For most kids with autism, their first instinct is fight or flight, but when you put them on a horse it lowers their blood pressure and settles their vestibular system. Their sensory system is overstimulated and the horse counteracts that. During lessons, they move from station to station in the arena and complete activities. They are learning and working on balance and coordination. By the time they get off, it’s like they had a massage. Their behavior is generally calmer for hours after a ride.
We also have a reading and riding program for students with dyslexia. They read for 45 minutes and get to ride as a reward. These kids may have dyslexia, ADHD, or anxiety disorders and riding helps all of it. Everybody brushes and grooms, no matter what level they are on. When they finish riding, they thank and treat the horse.
A horse’s personality changes from rider to rider. I have a student with a type of brittle bone disorder. She has broken around 34 bones in her life. We adopted our only gaited horse for her to ride. He was supposed to be smooth but he is goofy and will give most people a ride for their money. But when she gets on him, he’s as good as gold. She loves him and he knows she is the boss. She doesn’t come up to the top of his legs, but he does anything he tells her to. It’s hysterical.
We work with the Exception Foundation and the adults with special needs come out to ride once a month. This is a community service project for some of my full-time students. They walk with the horses and riders around the arena and on trail rides. I love seeing how their service to others feeds their souls.
I don’t think I could be without a horse. I know these horses upside down and backward. They bring me joy and soothe my heart. We also have rabbits, pigs, goats, cats, dogs, and a cow on our farm. While they all play a part in our program, they aren’t just for the students, they make me happy, too.”