Those who have spent any amount of time on the back of a horse can attest to the connection that is formed through riding, and the empowerment that connection can provide for a person. At Stockhands Horses for Healing, co-founded by Tim Funk and Lisa Benton, those connections are being formed every day, and with even deeper meaning.
Stockhands, which began in 2014, serves as a therapeutic riding center that offers equine-assisted activities geared towards both children and adults with physical, emotional and developmental disabilities. Located on approximately 38 acres at 3788 Olentangy River Road in Delaware, the nonprofit organization currently has 30 horses in its 32-stall facility. The facility includes an indoor riding arena, outdoor arenas, and a mile of riding trails.
Among the services Stockhands provides are therapeutic riding lessons, programs for both veterans and first responders, addiction recovery programs, and more. There is no riding skill level required to participate, making the various services friendly to all.
“Our goal is for everyone to learn to ride,” Funk said. “But at the same time, building confidence and getting out of your shell a little bit.”
Funk said the idea for Stockhands began years ago as he was going to school to be certified as a farrier. During the process, he said an individual approached him about getting her son on the back of a horse. However, the individual’s son is autistic, and Funk was given two simple guidelines: her son doesn’t like to be touched, and he won’t talk.
Funk, who admittedly was uneducated on autism at the time, agreed, although he was skeptical of the end result. To further complicate matters, he said he had the perfect horse set out for the child. However, after his daughter took the horse trail riding that morning, Funk was left with a barrel horse that he described as a “hothead.”
The results of the day played out like nothing Funk could have expected. The child, who he said was 10-12 years old, got right up on the horse with no issue. More importantly, the horse proved to be as accommodating as Funk could have hoped for.
“Generally, he’s twitchy, popping up in the front end. You have to ask him everything twice,” Funk said of the horse. “Finally, he kind of set his head like an old ‘peanut roller’ (horse). Every time the kid shifted his weight in the saddle, the horse would stop and look back at him. I was like, ‘This is so unlike you, what is going on?’”
After guiding the horse around for 15 minutes, the child was ready to dismount. After doing so, the horse went right back to his normal self. But as Funk and the child walked away, something else unusual happened: the child held Funk’s hand.
“(His) mom is bawling and I have no idea why,” Funk said of the moment. “It wasn’t until later on that evening that I found out that he doesn’t hold his mother’s hand, doesn’t hold his father’s hand. He doesn’t have that personal interaction.”
Curious about the connection between the child and the horse, Funk needed to see more. He asked Benton, whose nephew is autistic, if, perhaps, she could get him out to ride as well. While they didn’t see the same changes in the child, Funk said there was a similar change in the horse’s demeanor a second time. With the experiences serving as an introduction to the idea that the horses could be therapeutic, the ball was rolling for Stockhands Horses for Healing.
In the veterans program, which is offered for free, Funk said he saw that veterans are often much more apt to open up on the back of a horse than they would be if they were simply sitting around and chatting. A veteran himself, Funk said he believes horses provide a sense of security that allows people to let their guard down in ways they otherwise wouldn’t.
The program is offered every other Friday for two hours each night, focusing on the basics of riding such as starting and stopping initially and then progressing from there. Funk said there is no pressure for veterans to even ride in the program, with the biggest emphasis being on the camaraderie the program provides. For those who do wish to ride, there are veterans who also volunteer at Stockhands and further serve to build that camaraderie among fellow veterans.
Veterans who perhaps can’t properly sit on a horse, whether due to age or injuries sustained in service, can still get interactions with the horses through driving. Funk said the program teaches veterans how to harness and hitch a horse to easy-entry carts or carriages.
Like so many operations, Stockhands has been hit hard by the outbreak of COVID-19. Benton said their biggest annual fundraiser centers around the Kentucky Derby, which runs on the first Saturday in May but was postponed this year to September. In addition to the derby being pushed back, their venue — Ohio Wesleyan University — being shut down meant the event had to be canceled.
Benton said the impact of the pandemic has cost Stockhands around $40,000 in fundraising alone, with a loss of income as well due to the lack of paid lessons.
Having just recently reopened for lessons, Benton said they are following all the safety protocols relating to the virus, including temperature checks prior to lessons and instructors and volunteers wearing masks throughout. Lesson times are now spaced further apart to allow for all tack to be sanitized in between lessons.
While monetary donations are always welcomed and needed, Funk said the biggest need Stockhands has is to add more volunteers. Types of volunteer work include barn assistance, grooming, side walking and leaders to assist riders, and other roles.
To learn more about Stockhands Horses for Healing, its programs, and volunteer opportunities, visit its Facebook page at Stockhand Horses for Healing, call 614-318-5781, or email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.