The former Horsefeathers Therapeutic Riding program is now a horse of a different color - or at least, a horse of a different name. The program is now called Jabez Therapeutic Riding, Inc., and is run by the Old Frontier Christian Camp and Cowboy Church.
"I'm naming it after the prayer of Jabez in I Chronicles 4:9-10, which says to expand my territory," said Chris Smith, the chairman of the board of directors of Old Frontier. "We are just expanding our territory onto the backs of horses."
Horsefeathers Therapeutic Riding was a program that provided horseback rides to special children who are emotionally, physically or mentally challenged, according to Horsefeathers' owner, Thomas Brady. Mr. Brady founded Horsefeathers 14 years ago, and recently had to retire due to aging and health complications.
"It was one of the most rewarding things that I have ever done," he said. "I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. There were times when it was frustrating, aggravating, and things didn't go quite the way I wanted them to go. There was a problem with funds and things of that sort, but I enjoyed every minute of it. It was the best 14 years of my life."
Mr. Smith said he is learning from Mr. Brady and will run the Jabez program in the same manner, which includes being governed by the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association. Although Horsefeathers worked primarily with Special Education students in Warren and McDuffie counties, Mr. Smith said he hopes to expand the Jabez program "territory" to include Glascock, Jefferson, Lincoln, Richmond, Taliaferro and Wilkes counties.
The classes take place in the spring and fall for 10 weeks, and involve the children learning all phases of basic riding and animal care under the close supervision of trained volunteers. The program uses smaller horses, enabling the volunteer support to reach the child as they walk alongside the horse; as well as older horses, that are "laid back and reliable," according to Mr. Brady. Each horse and rider will have one trainer leading the horse and additional trainers walking on each side of the horse.
"It is especially good for physically handicapped kids, but it is also good for severely mentally handicapped children. And they just love it," said Nancy Moak, the special education director of Warren County Schools. "The animals are trained to respond to the commands of the students, (no matter how slight their command is.) I can't say enough good things about the program."
In an interview, Mr. Brady fondly told stories of children who have benefited from the program, including a six-year-old boy who wouldn't talk at all. By the time he finished two 10-week sessions, the boy not only was talking, but was taken out of the special ed classroom and returned to the regular class environment at school, where he was reading books aloud.
"Now what riding a horse has to do with talking, I can't tell you. I do not know. But he began to talk," Mr. Brady said.
Mr. Brady remembers being told by one teacher not to worry about teaching a student who was autistic because he couldn't be helped. The child ran non-stop and the teacher said he would never sit still long enough to ride a horse.
Mr. Brady said after all the other children in the class had their lesson, he stopped the little boy who was running and asked him if he wanted to ride a horse and explained the rules. The boy questioned what would happen if he didn't follow the rules and didn't sit still.
"I said 'Well, that's real simple, you'll have to get off the horse,'" Mr. Brady said. "And he was one of the best riders we had. He sat on the horse, listened to what the instructor told him and he rode the horse. When he got off the horse, he started running. But when he was on the horse, he was picture-perfect. You would never have believed that he was autistic."
Mr. Brady said he had difficulty looking for a replacement to take over the program, and he was thankful when Mr. Smith came along. He said the program is too successful to completely stop it.
"There is something that is almost magic that happens when they get on that horse, and I don't know what it is. But it's something that I wish everybody could see. It kept me going for 14 years, I'll put it that way," he said.
Anyone interested in more information, enrolling a student, being a volunteer or making a contribution, may call Mr. Smith at 706-533-2544.
A professional rodeo will be held at Old Frontier at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, June 5 & 6, with all proceeds benefiting Jabez Therapeutic Riding.
JTR is a tax-exempt, non-profit organization. Contributions may be for the program in general, or to sponsor a rider or a horse, and may be for any time period. Funds are used to cover the cost of insurance, special equipment and normal operating expenses.