Not Just Horsing Around

Walk through the gates of Healing Horses and leave all your troubles behind. That’s what many have done since the organization’s inception more than a decade ago. Children and adults alike have benefited from the nonprofit’s services throughout the years, thanks to the therapeutic bond that develops between horses and humans.

Jaden April is one of those keiki who has found happiness spending time with the gentle giants at Healing Horses. April suffers from the neurological disorder Tourette syndrome.

“It’s helped her immensely – she doesn’t tick when she’s here,” says her mother Alice, who regularly volunteers for Healing Horses (located on the Wailua side of the Kapaa bypass road) with her daughter.

“I thought it was just going to be to help my daughter, but it’s helped me too. When I’m here, I’m calm, I’m present and I’m focused, and I leave all my worries outside the gate.”

Healing Horses is a therapeutic horse-riding program that specializes in helping people with disabilities (equine-assisted activities and therapies). The program was founded in 2002 by Karen Stoll, a licensed social worker, and it achieved nonprofit status in 2008. It has been in operation at its current location since 2012. The horses are used as the healing medium, but they also benefit from the interactions, as many of them were rescued from terrible conditions.

There is empirical evidence that social, mental and physical benefits abound when people engage in equine activities. The biggest perk for participants is a boost of self-esteem and confidence, as they are awarded with the ability to achieve something significant.

“When they get the response from a 1,000-pound animal that’s positive, it’s really empowering,” says Heather Phelps, Healing Horses executive director.

Riding horses is a therapeutic activity that can ease someone’s busy mind.

“All of the concentration that you have to put into riding that horse will force you to let go of all of that,” explains Phelps.

The program has helped keiki who may have gone through their parents’ divorce, have suffered some degree of loss, or even who have just moved to the island and are seeking comfort.

“You have to forget all of that. That has to be left at the gate,” says Phelps. “If you don’t leave that at the gate when you come in here, the horse is going to have a really hard time listening if you’re not engaged and you’re not focused on what you’re doing.”

The program also assists people with limited mobility in the lower portion of the body, as sitting on and riding a horse can enhance upper-body muscle tone and balance. And it’s great exercise for keiki, especially after the first few sessions.

“But the beauty of it is that they don’t know they are exercising. They think they just went for a fun horseback ride,” says Phelps, who teaches basic riding skills.

Each class is broken down into three parts.

The first is grooming and getting the horses ready for riding.

The second is actually riding the horse along a path and also soon in a large arena currently under construction on the property.

Grooming the horses for a final time and putting them away, and any equipment, is the third activity.

“A little bit of independence and responsibility go along with the lesson,” explains Phelps.

It’s obvious that Phelps is an equine enthusiast. Her smile is as wide when she is around the horses as those of the group of children who visited the facilities during this Midweek Kauai interview.

“I’ve always naturally been drawn to horses,” she says. “There is something majestic about them that is calming and soothing and also energizing.”

The Kauai native, who grew up in Kalaheo and graduated from Waimea High School in 1990, started taking horseback-riding lessons when she was 8 years old.

Phelps returned to Kauai after studying abroad in London, achieving a major in hospitality management. She worked in the visitor industry for more than 20 years.

“I loved the hospitality management side of my job, and I loved working with people and providing them with exceptional service. It was always something high on my priority list and close to my heart,” says Phelps.

But after volunteering with Healing Horses for a number of years, in 2008 she accepted the opportunity to serve as its executive director. Phelps, a Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH) certified instructor, has loved providing the joyful experience of bringing people together with horses ever since.

“She’s dedicated. She’s out here no matter what,” says Alice April. “No matter what the season, no matter what the temperature, she’s out here helping people.”

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