In Chatham County, just outside Bloomingdale off Highway 204, there is a property with an old house, horse stables, an arena and a barn.
It is filled with the sounds of people who are living with some kind of disability. This little barn has been a safe haven and a place for them to grow since it was established in 2000.
Judy Clark was the visionary who set Horsin’ Around in motion. After watching her niece, who has cerebral palsy, benefit from horseback riding, Clark knew something special was happening.
“At that time, there was no other program around like that,” said Jill Stanberry, the program’s vice president and volunteer coordinator.
Clark knew she had to do something, so this nonprofit organization began to take shape.
Horsin’ Around is a therapeutic horseback riding facility for those with special needs. It is 501(c)(3) nonprofit that relies on a 100 percent volunteer operation. It serves people ages 2-34 but welcomes anyone with a disability to see if horseback therapy can help.
“Horsin’ Around currently has eight therapy horses, ranging from a relatively short Tarpon with a flat back to a 2,000-pound Percheron,” said Ann Zaitz, the organization’s treasurer and secretary, and the mother of a rider. “This variety allows us to serve a variety of needs well. The biggest advantage of doing therapy with horses is the rider and horses really bond with each other.”
Horsin’ Around serves Bryan, Chatham and Liberty counties. The riders come in twice a week, on Tuesday and Thursday, for a 30-minute riding session. But these sessions aren’t typical horseback-riding experiences.
“Equine-assisted therapy uses the horse to achieve a variety of therapeutic goals, which may include cognitive, physical, emotional, social, educational or behavioral goals,” Zaitz said.
Stanberry said, “When we hear guardians/parents tell us how much this has helped their child with confidence, balance and attitude, it reminds us why we are doing it. It’s very social, and they are comfortable out here; no one judges them. They don’t have to worry out here.”
It is challenging to keep up with the demands — financial and otherwise — of taking care of eight horses, along with general maintenance and upkeep of the facility. But Stanberry said the feedback they get from the parents makes it all worthwhile.
Joseph Zaitz, 13, a rider and volunteer, said the “joys are of helping people.”
He has been riding since he was 7. He didn’t even speak until he 5, and he has been diagnosed with autism. Over the years, Joseph has dealt with sensory issues that prevented him from touching even the family dog.
His mother, Ann Zaitz, said, “He wouldn’t even touch the ground if he fell down, and now here he is, grooming horses, sleeping with the family dog and talking nonstop.”
“Working with animals has completely changed him,” she said. “Autism is not always seen by people. He has become a self-advocate this way by saying, ‘I ride with Horsin’ Around,’ and this has become an ice breaker for him to be able to talk about it with people.”
The therapy benefits the riders, Zaitz said, along with their caregivers.
“A lot of caregivers tell us they sleep at night,” she said. “Sleep is a big issue for kids with disabilities of any kind. There is even improvement seen in digestion.”
The ability to complete multi-step commands is a huge accomplishment for many riders, she added.
“Sitting on a horse, your spine lines up with the horse just like walking,” Zaitz said. “So even if you are paralyzed, you are strengthening and stretching your muscles. One of our riders has a brain disorder; sitting up on a horse has helped her gain core strength.”
This core strength enables her to more easily get in and out of a wheelchair. This helps her and her caregivers support her growing body, Zaitz said.
None of this would be possible without a devoted staff and volunteers, including:
• Erin Dunn, president and certified physical therapist
• Jill Stanberry, vice president and volunteer coordinator
• Ann Zaitz, treasurer, secretary and mother of a rider
• Michelle Hand, Professional Association Therapeutic Horsemanship-certified Instructor
• Katy Phillips, barn manager.
Board members are: Dunn, Kaitlyn Holcombe, assistant volunteer coordinator, Cathy Nelson, speech/language pathologist, Stanberry and
For more information on Horsin’ Around, its summer camp, special events or how to volunteer or make donations, go to www.horsinaround.org.