EDITOR DANIEL CLIFTON
Bill McCartney walked along the outside edge of the HARTH Foundation’s covered arena. Spartacus, or Sparty for short, a 20-year-old bay Hanoverian warmblood horse, trailed just off his left shoulder. When Bill turned right, so did Sparty. If the horse didn’t follow, an instructor stepped in to get the two back in sync.
It’s all done off lead with nothing physical connecting animal to man. The horse has to want to follow.
“You can’t force your will on a horse,” said Sherry Atherton, HARTH Foundation founder and executive director. “They have to want to do something for you.”
The horses at HARTH serve as therapy partners for veterans and service members suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, or other related issues as well as their families. In March, Atherton expanded the program to include services for youths and adults with special needs.
When Atherton started the foundation in 2015, she already had the stables, a covered arena, and horse facilities from the days she and her daughter crisscrossed the country competing in equestrian show jumping events. Nestled along Lake Buchanan, it seemed the perfect place for an equine-therapy program.
Since its founding, HARTH has been instrumental in changing people’s lives for the better through its equine programs. The six-week horsemanship class teaches participants the basics of grooming, horse care, and groundwork.
Some already have experience with horses. Others, like Kerstin Nance, a service member’s spouse, did not. She admitted she had to overcome her fear of horses as a first step in the program.
“I was kind of scared at first, but now I can walk right up to a horse,” she said.
The program pushed her to overcome that fear, but, more important, it helped her with the reason she signed up in the first place, her anxiety.
Horses act as barometers of how a person working with them feels, Atherton said. If the human is frustrated and upset, the horse becomes agitated, too. Realizing the animal is mirroring behavior helps people recognize their own anxieties, allowing them to better regulate problem emotions.
For example, as McCartney worked with Sparty, when the horse made mistakes, McCartney remained calm, checked any negative emotions, and stopped to wait for the horse to return to him.
The horses give immediate feedback, Atherton said. You can’t fool them and you can’t force them. The best thing to do is bring yourself under better control.
Nance said the process is definitely working for her. When she comes to the HARTH stables, any anxiety she brings with her drains away.
“They just calm you down,” she said of the animals.
The success with veterans and military members spurred Atherton to offer her programs to adults and youths with special needs. The HARTH Foundation recently earned its PATH International certificate as a special-needs equine program. Getting the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International recognition took a lot of work from Atherton, the HARTH board, and a host of volunteers.
“Looking around, we saw that there was no other program like this in Burnet County, and yet there’s such a need for it,” Atherton said.
The special-needs program costs $65 per 1½-hour session with a PATH International-certified instructor. Not all insurances cover the therapy, so the foundation actively seeks donations for scholarships.
And while the veterans programs are free, it still costs the foundation money to cover the monthly expenses — and horses are expensive. One way that individuals, organizations, and businesses can help is to sponsor a therapy horse. Another is to volunteer.
“We always need people who want to help,” Atherton said.
The program makes a visible difference, whether in the smile of a special-needs child riding a horse for the first time or when veterans struggling with PTSD learn to connect with their equine therapists.
“I can’t put it in words really how it feels,” Nance said, “but I know being around the horses and the class, it’s helped me. Helped me a lot.”
Go to harthtx.org for more information about the HARTH Foundation and its programs.
The first-ever HARTH Foundation Feedraiser is 9 AM to 6 PM on June 15 at Hill Country Feed and Hay, 1801 E. Polk St. in Burnet. Help the organization reach its 5-ton feed goal. Raffle tickets are on sale now for $5 each or $20 for five. Win a bucket full of horse supplies and local gift certificates. Those who can’t make the event may still make a donation by calling the feed store at (512) 756-7674 to order M-G Senior Horse Feed for HARTH.