MILTON, Ga. — A local nonprofit that provides equestrian therapy and comfort to those with special needs is now in need of help itself.
Milton-based Special Equestrians of Georgia will need the community’s help to stay afloat after a season of wet weather and a COVID-19 shutdown. The group has seen its limited income to care for horses slashed and has been forced to rehome several therapy horses.
“I’ve had parents call me all week saying, ‘Please don’t shut down, don’t stop,’ but to be honest, I do not have a choice,” said Stacey Edwards, the organization’s founder and president. “With coronavirus, we had to shut down because we see kids who are the most vulnerable, kids that can really get sick and lose their life over this. We couldn’t in good conscious continue.”
The organization, which provides therapeutic riding, hippotherapy and equine-assisted psychotherapy, is run by volunteers. Edwards said the group cannot screen all who lend help, and that was another reason to close amid COVID-19.
The financial burden of caring for 18 horses was also too great after the organization lost its small income from offering lessons. The farm does not have a covered arena, and a rainy winter created a string of cancelations.
“If I had been able to have lessons all the way through, we might have been able to hold on for a few months,” Edwards said. “But every time it rained, I had to call lessons. We can’t run horses for therapy. There are some people who will have horses go through the mud, but my guys are handling very fragile cargo, and we can’t have them slipping and falling on a kid.”
The novel coronavirus has also upped the financial burden on caring for the horses. Hay prices have doubled recently, and feed has gone up in price. Feeding the horses has jumped from about $200 a week to around $500 to $600 a week, Edwards said. That figure does not include medical care.
With slashed income and a shutdown, the organization has been forced to rehome nearly half of its therapy horses.
“These horses are so well trained, and people really wanted them,” Edwards said. “But a lot of the horses are older, and we can’t give them to anybody and have to figure out a way to carry them. They are all the old guys. They can do therapy, but you can’t take them on trail rides, and they are not going to show. They would wind up at a kill shelter.”
The group’s mini horses will remain with Special Equestrians. Edwards hopes they can continue to visit nursing homes and rehabilitation centers with the minis.
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It breaks her heart to lose the horses, but Edwards said she’s especially concerned for those who use the organization’s programs.
“I feel so bad for the kids that are going to miss therapy,” she said. “In some cases, it is the only thing their families can afford to do. Many don’t have insurance. They can’t afford therapy and only get therapy in school, and school therapy is only about 20 minutes.”
One girl’s situation especially sticks out for Edwards.
“We had a little girl who started a couple of weeks back who has spina bifida,” she said. “We put her on the horse, and she giggled and laughed. When we went to do leg exercises, she said, ‘Oh, I have to take my pony home.’ We explained that [the horse] had to say here, but I told her she could feed the pony any day she wanted.”
Edwards said the girl showed up every day to feed the horse in the weeks that followed. The animal has since been rehomed.
“How do you say to this little girl her pony is gone?” Edwards said. “What do you say? I called her mom and told her when everything gets back, I can find a pony for her. But I don’t know if I can.”
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It is not just children who have benefited from Special Equestrians.
Kayla Bergeron, who lives in Suwanee, is a survivor of 9/11.
Bergeron was working as an official with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in the North Tower of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. After the tower was struck, she made the 68-story descent out of the building before it collapsed.
Bergeron survived, but she has since suffered from PTSD. She uses several forms of therapy, but she said Special Equestrians provides a tranquility she finds nowhere else.
She had no real history with horses prior to her time with the organization, and the limited equestrian experience she did have was not positive. When she was 9, Bergeron said she was riding a horse with a neighbor when the animal was spooked by a nearby fox. The horse took off and charged into a tree with low-hanging branches, leaving the young Bergeron bruised and cut.
But her first day at Special Equestrians showed her the calming benefits horses can provide.
“I kind of had this romantic notion that I would get on a horse, and I would live happily ever after,” Bergeron said. “That’s not the relationship with horses, though. But something happened that day. Lily (the horse) was there, and I kind of went up to her, and she put her head on my shoulder. It was a true release of emotion and energy. She must have sensed something was wrong and provided relief. That’s what they do. They march to their own beat, but they sense when people are hurt or needing.”
That was around a year ago, and Bergeron has been back at Special Equestrians just about every week since.
“I’m seeing kids go there with challenges across the spectrum,” Bergeron said. “When you see them get out of the car, they are very unsteady and very unsure. Then you get them on a horse, and they come into their own. It’s one of the beauties of life.”
Like many, she was devastated to hear the organization is shutting down, but she hopes the community will rally around the group.
“[During 9/11], there was a point when I was trapped in the dark because the building had twisted. I said a little prayer, and just then a Port Authority cop showed up and took me out of the building. Sometimes is just takes one act. And it can take just one individual or one check to keep [Special Equestrians] afloat.”
The group is taking donations through specialequestriansofgeorgia.org.