HARTH Foundation instructor Jereny Johnson guides retired police officer Jeff Kneller as he works with his horse during a recent lesson. The foundation initially only offered programs to active military members and veterans but has since expanded its equine therapy to others. Staff photo by Daniel Clifton
HARTH Foundation founder Sherry Atherton stood in the covered arena watching instructor Jereny Johnson give retired police officer Jeff Kneller a horseback riding lesson at the facility on Lake Buchanan.
“There’s just something so calm, relaxing being out here, being around the horses,” Atherton said. “Even if you don’t get on one, horses are good to be around for you.”
HARTH Foundation offers a number of equine programs. One of the latest, the program in which Kneller is taking part, is Life is Stressful, Ride a Horse. It teaches ages 9 and older the tools to handle the stresses of life.
“When someone comes out here (for the Life is Stressful program), we ask them to gauge their stress level before before they start (the lesson),” Atherton said. “What we’ve found is they get about a 30 percent decrease in their stress level after the lesson.”
Students apply the stress-reduction techniques they’ve learned at HARTH at home, work, and school.
Atherton started HARTH Foundation in 2015 to offer active military members and veterans an innovative equine therapy program to help them deal with any number of issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder. The initial program was strictly ground based; they learned about horses, groomed them, and worked with them on and off a lead.
A horse, Atherton said, can quickly detect when a person is agitated, stressed, or anxious and will react to the negative emotion, moving away from the person or behaving in a manner other than what the person wants.
“Horses give you immediate feedback on how you’re feeling,” said Melisa O’Shields, HARTH director of operations. “If you’re anxious, they become anxious. If you’re calm, well, they become calm.”
“You learn to become aware of how you feel, very quickly, around horses,” Atherton said.
The program for military members was effective, and HARTH created a riding program for them called “Back in the Saddle.”
But service members aren’t the only ones who benefit from being around horses. In fact, equine therapy is recognized by medical and mental health experts as a treatment for a number of human ailments, physical and mental. So, in an effort to expand its programs to other people, the facility and instructor Johnson completed the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International certification process.
HARTH now offers therapeutic riding for ages as young as 4 years old. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the facility has reduced sessions in which a rider needs staff to walk alongside them, but Atherton said if parents or caregivers want to be trained in assisting, the facility will offer programs.
When the pandemic started in March 2020, HARTH Foundation programs were reined in. The foundation reopened in July, and programs really got going again in the fall. With the exception of February due to the winter storm, 2021 is off to a strong start.
Life is Stressful, Ride a Horse seems to be just what people needed right now, Atherton said.
“Who hasn’t felt stress this year?” she said.
The program is open to beginners through experienced riders. Under Johnson’s tutelage, participants learn the basics of horsemanship from the ground up. The classes are limited to two people at a time, though Atherton said special requests can be made for three students.
“We really try to focus on quality, not quantity,” she said. “And with Jereny, she’s been instructing for years and is such a great teacher. This isn’t a trail ride, you do learn to ride.”
And learn a lot about yourself.
HARTH Foundation, 3307 Sunset Cliff Road in Burnet, is a nonprofit organization that relies on community support through donations and volunteerism. The organization is always seeking volunteers to help in a number of areas, including barn duties as well as organizing events such as its first Hoe Down fundraiser on Nov. 11.