THROUGH EQUINE THERAPY, TUPELO KIDS OF ALL AGES LEARN LIFE SKILLS AND FIND A PLACE TO BELONG.
WRITTEN BY Rachel Burchfield
PHOTOGRAPHED BY JOE WORTHEM
About 16 years ago, Sherry Jenkins began searching for an extracurricular activity that her then 8-year-old daughter, Meredith, who has central auditory processing disorder, low muscle tone, dyslexia and ADHD, could participate in. It came down to two options: horseback riding or karate. After a family visit to Carver Lane Stables in Tupelo to watch a riding lesson, Jenkins’ son, Nicholas, looked at his mother and said, “There’s no need to go anywhere else.”
Thus began a passion for not just Meredith but the entire Jenkins family. After Meredith won her first blue ribbon, she looked at her mother and told her, “See, I can do this!” That moment inspired Jenkins to want to provide that feeling to as many people as possible. Jenkins is now executive director of the Hope Unbridled Equestrian Program in Tupelo.
“I want anyone who comes here, wheth-er they are able-bodied or handicapped, to succeed where they are and have a place to belong,” Jenkins said. “I want all of our students to achieve the highest they can achieve. There is no judgment and no boundaries here as far as what you can be. I want all of them to have the feeling of ‘I can do this.’”
Hope Unbridled was launched in 2015 by Bobby, Sherry and Meredith Jenkins and Terry Timmons. This nonprofit equine therapy program offers recreational riding, horsemanship programs, psychotherapy — and hope — to budding equestrians of all ages, abilities or circumstances. The program has served over 50 children so far.
One such child is Anna Holcomb, who was born with cerebral palsy and has attended physical therapy since she was 6 weeks old. Anna’s physical therapist told Anna and her mother, Crystal, about Hope Unbridled, and Anna, now 14, has been riding with Jenkins and her team since the program started four years ago.
“Anna has always loved being around animals and bonds so easily with the horses,” Crystal said. “Her favorite thing to do is love on her horses and claim them as her own. She thrives with this hands-on environment. With Hope Unbridled, she is able to be involved in activities that other kids her age are doing. Hope Unbridled brings so much joy to Anna’s life — not only has this strengthened Anna physically, but it’s improved her social skills, cognitive skills and increased her self-esteem.”
Horseback riding is therapeutic for several reasons, Jenkins said. It helps with anxiety, because when participants learn to control a 900-plus pound animal, they are also learning self-control, boundaries, a sense of belonging and a sense of leadership. From a physical standpoint, riding a horse improves core strength while also teaching riders hand, eye and leg coordination. Horseback riding releases serotonin, which provides a sense of well-being. Horses, who are herd animals, are able to pick up on a rider’s state of mind and respond intuitively.
“Horses don’t care if you’re skinny, fat, polka-dotted, a good student or a bad student,” Jenkins said. “They care about who you are there in that moment. They aren’t thinking about tomorrow or yesterday, and they don’t hold grudges. They are remarkable animals.”
By learning how to care for a horse, 14-year-old Benjamin Boatner is also learning how to better care for himself, said his mother, Emily. Born at just 23 weeks gestation and weighing a little over 1 pound, Benjamin’s outlook was bleak. But thanks to experiences like Hope Unbridled, he lives a full life. Benjamin has pervasive developmental disorder, which falls under the autism umbrella. Always hoping to improve his development, the Boatners decided to give Hope Unbridled a try.
“In many ways, he is able to care for the horses better than himself,” Emily said. “He rides freely, without the use of lead ropes, commanding and guiding the horses. Our hope is that Benjamin will be able to translate his capabilities acquired through horse therapy to his everyday life at home and interacting with people.”
Benjamin’s aunt is Terry Timmons, one of Hope Unbridled’s cofounders. But regardless of blood ties, to Emily, everyone there seems like family.
“Hope Unbridled feels like an extension of home for us these days,” Emily said. “They are truly like family to us. Any parent of special needs kids knows the emotional toll it can take. It can be a difficult road. Sherry has hugged me through my tears, laughed along at Benjamin’s most unconventional sense of humor and shared in the joy of Benjamin’s accomplishments.”
Hope Unbridled is home to 10 therapy horses, trained specially to win over even the most cautious rider. Kristie Dye’s 9-year-old daughter, Avery, who, like Anna Holcomb, also has cerebral palsy, was so nervous when she first started with Hope Unbridled that she wouldn’t even look at or touch the horses, Kristie said. Almost five years into the program, it has not only helped Avery physically, particularly with her balance, but she isn’t afraid anymore.
“Our family is so grateful for all the work that they do,” Kristie said.
Hope Unbridled comprises four core programs: Ride On, a riding program for special needs participants of any age; Stride Out, a leadership development horse-riding program for students from all walks of life who are looking to develop riding and horsemanship skills; HoofBeats of Hope, where a licensed mental health professional partners with horses in therapy sessions to address issues resulting from the traumatic effects of abuse, neglect, loss, depression, anxiety, chronic illness and addiction; and Stable Solutions, for at-risk youth ages 12-18, to teach positive life choices and confident coping skills.
Jenkins’ Hope Unbridled continues to grow, with plans to utilize the program’s horses to help students practice reading, as horses don’t care whether kids read a word incorrectly, or read to them fast or slow.
“We are about people learning to accept people as they are,” Jenkins said. “We make a difference by giving people a place to belong, grow and find themselves.”
And what about Meredith, whose journey inspired Hope Unbridled and whose inspiration has been able to positively impact so many? She’s 24 now, and, in addition to being a cofounder of the program, is Hope Unbridled’s equine manager, helping other kids find their places in the world, places where they, too, can thrive.