Friday, August 26, 2011

Hidden healing

For 20 years, Sagebrush Equine Training Center has quietly served the valley’s disabled

Express Staff Writer

Courtesy photo Sagebrush Equine Training Center near Hailey provides a wide variety of therapy for the handicapped.

As people drive past the large gray barn between Buttercup Road and state Highway 75, it doesn't occur to most that there's anything more there than another of the valley's many horse operations. But in the event of a life-altering accident, stroke, traumatic experience or even the start of a new school year with a child who cannot seem to concentrate, this low-key ranch can become a major spoke in the therapeutic process.

For 20 years, Sagebrush Equine Training Center for the Handicapped has supplied therapy through its clients' being on and around horses.

If it were to cease to exist, nearly 175 people in the valley would be left without this free physical and mental service. With Medicaid cutbacks to many of the agencies supporting those with disabilities, the hours a client spends at Sagebrush may be the only support he or she will have.

"We are not providing medical care here," said Executive Director Cheryl Bennett. "But we are providing therapy, free."

The center is fortunate to have a compassionate stable of donors and ample grants to keep it going despite the recession.

For the past 10 years, Bennett said, she thought she knew how Sagebrush worked. As a volunteer, she showed up at the allotted time, assumed her spot prepping horse and rider, leading the horse or walking alongside, and an instructor guided the lesson plan. In an hour or so, it was over.

"You knew something great was happening—you could see it," she said. "But it wasn't until now that I understood how much goes into each and every person who comes through the doors here and how close any one of us is day-to-day to needing what is offered here."

Bennett took over as executive director in the spring, coming into the job during its busiest time with planning for summer work/camp programs for at-risk kids, overseeing the annual fundraising Cowboy Ball, training volunteers and staff, screening new candidates and keeping 12 horses healthy and happy to be used as a therapy tool.

"People don't realize what a draw this center is to the valley and the impact that little nonprofits like ours and others do to sustain the community," she said.

Bennett reflected on the last several months on the job days before the summer program's wrapup with a Junior Rodeo tonight and the Sagebrush Stampede on Saturday. The Sagebrush Stampede is a mini-Olympics horse show with riders from Twin Falls and Idaho Falls coming to compete against the center's riders.

She said families move to the valley to avail themselves of the help they can get from Sagebrush, the school district and other adaptive programs because of the encompassing setting of the valley as a recreational and educational center. A family with a disabled child, a spouse recovering from a stroke, someone suffering post traumatic stress or anyone looking for another avenue to reach a loved one is welcome to try equine-assisted therapy.

This summer, in addition to regular student population, Sagebrush hosted kids with cancer from Camp Rainbow Gold, taking horses up to their site north of Ketchum and leading them on trail rides and playing games.

But it was the six women Bennett met through the Wounded Warriors program that took her breath away. A psychologist sat down with the staff and a select group of female volunteers before the women arrived. One had a broken back from a Humvee explosion and survived breast cancer. Others had endured violence and were riddled with anxiety. The crew needed to know how to approach the women and what to prepare for.

One woman's experience summed up for Bennett the importance of the work.

"She didn't want to get on that horse," Bennett said. "She would touch him and fall apart, she was so afraid."

After spending time grooming the horse, the woman eventually mustered the courage to ride.

"She ended up being the best rider out there, she was all smiles and even said, 'This is the first time I've felt whole in years.' By the end, they were just six girls on a fun weekend in Sun Valley."

"We all know what our pets do for us, but it's something even more powerful to be accepted by a 1,100-pound animal," Bennett said.

In a few weeks, the center's lobby will be filled with children from the Developmental Pre-school, piling into seats in the log cabin waiting, and behaving, so that they can ride. People like Leah Haile, who rely on the program to get her out of her wheelchair, especially in winter, will be back more, too.

Bennett credits the volunteers, amazing horses and a heavily involved board for ensuring that the staff can deliver the best to each client.

"All our teachers are certified by the national organization [of equine-assisted therapy]," she said. "It is important the staff know all the rules, but we want them to be flexible enough to be able to give each client the time and love and consideration they deserve."

Jennifer Liebrum:

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