Strides Therapeutic Horsemanship Center in Franklin Co. provides hope

By Jeff Morrow for TCAJOB

Everyone at Dun Roamin Ranch has his or her stories.

And every one of those stories can bring tears to a listener’s eyes. Happy tears.

[blockquote quote=”In each lesson you can usually expect a little miracle.” source=”Jill McCary, owner of Strides Therapeutic Horsemanship Center” align=”right” max_width=”300px”]

So this is a happy story.

Jill McCary, who runs Strides Therapeutic Horsemanship Center at the little ranch she and her husband Dan have about 22 miles north of Pasco and near Eltopia, looks for the little miracles every day.

Strides uses horses to work with children with autism in their therapy.

“I do it for the kids,” Jill McCary said. “I love horses and I love kids. When you have parents standing outside the arena crying, it’s worth it.”

And those tears are for good reasons.

Like the time seven years ago a young man from Pasco came out for a ride.

“He was at the bottom of the autism spectrum,” McCary said. “After riding the horse, we got him to count to 20. His mother cried. She said ‘I didn’t know he could count to 20.’ The father had to work late, but he got out here, and the mother had us make him count to 20 again. The father cried.”

Strides was started in 2006 by a woman named Jennifer Casey, and McCary has been there from the start.

“We started with one student back then,” McCary said. “I was hired by the North Franklin School District. This one kid had autism. The district hired me to be his one-on-one.”

But in 2010 Strides was moved to McCary’s ranch, and Jill McCary took over.

Strides uses Hippotherapy and Adaptive Riding to work with the 76 current clients who come out to the ranch on a weekly basis.

Hippotherapy is described as “the use of horseback riding as a therapeutic or rehabilitative treatment, especially as a means of improving coordination, balance and strength.”

A horse’s pelvic movement is similar to a human’s.

“What happens with a child on the autism spectrum is the horse provides enough sensory feeling that it allows the child’s brain to process questions. The horse knows how they are feeling,” McCary said.

Strides added Hippotherapy to the program a few years ago.

“We initiated contact with Jill in 2014, and started it in March of 2015,” said Keely Bowen, a doctor of physical therapy who works at Kadlec in Richland. “I was always interested in horses. When I was in graduate school, I had an internship at a place like this in Kentucky. Prior to grad school, I shadowed a program like this. I knew that some day I wanted to do this. With these kids, it’s about being able to maintain a rhythm to organize their own internal rhythm.”

So Bowen went to her director at Kadlec and asked if she could start a physical therapy program with horses. She was given the OK.

Today, Strides has two physical therapists.

“We also have one PT assistant, one occupational therapist, and one speech language pathologist,” McCary said.

All of them work with Hippotherapy clients.

In adaptive riding, autistic students work on riding skills and social interaction.

“That takes at least two riders,” McCary said. “They usually have to greet each other. And we try to match them in the same category.”

Children as young as 2 years old do Hippotherapy, while kids as young as 4 years old do adaptive riding. Some do both. And the oldest client is 72.

There are more than 4,600 certified instructors and 866 therapeutic horsemanship centers around the globe. More than 62,000 children and adults take part in the therapy.

“It works,” said Shandiin Schwendiman, whose son Braxton was the very first horse rider in the program.

“Braxton has learned to ride a horse and be a horseman, but he has learned so much more,” Schwendiman said. “They have worked on his speech, motor skills, eating issues, sensory issues, confidence, compliance, social skills, and many more things. Today he is a fun-loving 13-year-old who is verbal, more confident and has his own sense of humor. … This program is a blessing to all the lives it touches.”

This is also a love story, and a story of redemption.

First, the love.

You have to love kids and you have to love horses to make something like this work.

Jill McCary loves them all.

“I have been riding horses since I was 7,” she said. “And I think of every one of these kids as mine.”

In 2010, the ranch had seven horses. Today, there are 14.

But McCary will be the first to tell you Strides wouldn’t be possible without the 35 volunteers who donate their time to help.

“We are a 501c3 nonprofit,” McCary said. “If we didn’t have such wonderful volunteers we couldn’t do this.”

Some families, like the Jacobs family from Eltopia, have volunteered for five years.

McCary is always looking for volunteer help.

“Volunteers have training. People do not need horse experience at all,” she said.

Others help in different ways, because the business is run on a shoestring budget.

Abutting the ranch are fruit orchards owned by Douglas Fruit.

“Their employees came over and built our arena down below the hill,” McCary said. “They allow us to utilize their grounds for trail rides. John Douglas has been amazing.”

So is the man who shoes her horses, Luke Tannehill, does it for half-price.

Zen-Noh Hay Inc., based in the Port of Pasco, donates hay for the horses all year long.

“That’s generally over $10,000 a year,” McCary said.

McCary herself provides the vaccinations for the horses.

And then there’s her husband, Dan, whose main job is being the Undersheriff of Franklin County.

“My husband, bless his heart,” McCary said. “He gets up early and feeds the horses before he goes to his job. When he gets home from work he’s back out here helping.”

Now this is where the redemption part comes in.

McCary and her group have saved four horses from the slaughter truck. One of those, named Tuff, is blind and being trained to work with veterans.

A couple more were saved from neglect, with hooves terribly overgrown.

The average age of McCary’s stable is 19, with the oldest being 31 and the youngest – a trainee right now – at 7.

They all still had something to give, and she and Bowen saw it.

Bowen recently found a horse on YouTube in a video made by a rescue group. She liked the way it walked. She showed it to McCary, who made the call to save it from slaughter.

“We’re always on the lookout for other horses,” McCary said.

But it’s not easy to become a working horse at Strides. They are trained over a 30-day period to determine if they have the patience to work with young children.

“The horses have to have the right personality,” McCary said.

If they fail, McCary finds them other work.

Some of the horses are really good at what they do. Such as Hope, who knows when a young boy comes to the ranch and is extremely agitated.

Hope will rest her head on the boy’s chest until the youngster settles down and is ready to ride.

“We call Hope our autism whisperer,” McCary said. “She’s amazing.”

Andrea Adams agrees.

Her son has been seeing Hope since April and the results have been incredible.

“What (my son) has accomplished in growth with his speech, cognitive ability and physically has been like night and day,” Adams said. “He went from hardly understandable to having full conversations in less than two months. We noticed that he was also much better at self regulation when he became upset or overwhelmed with sensory input.”

While Hippotherapy is billed to medical insurance, adaptive riding therapy is an out-of-pocket cost.

That’s why Strides is hosting its first fundraising dinner Aug. 19 at Stone Ridge Event Center in Pasco. It will raise scholarship money for people who can’t afford the therapy.

McCary wants to also add her first veterans group this fall, helping those with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I want to take just four to start so we can match them up with the right horse,” McCary said. “It would be a six-week session, and the veterans wouldn’t even ride for the first four weeks. They’d be working with them at first, brushing them and leading them around.”

The new program has the potential for more great stories.

Bowen talked of a 4-year-old girl who couldn’t grasp the concept of jumping – until she got off of a horse after a ride and jumped four inches to her parents’ delight.

Or the time a young boy who constantly drooled rode a horse, then went home.

“I got a call from his parents later that day,” Bowen said. “He quit drooling for the rest of the day.”

McCary tells of a big, tough law enforcement officer reduced to tears as he watched his daughter from outside the arena talk and give the horse commands – something she’d never done before.

“One girl wouldn’t leave her house for eight months,” McCary said, saying the girl was just too scared to do anything. “Her parents were able to get her to come out to the ranch, and now she comes out here and giggles and laughs.”

It’s these small miracles that keep everyone going.

“There are times where I’ve had to hold back tears, or other times I want to jump up and down,” McCary said. “In each lesson you can usually expect a little miracle. I can say with almost 100 percent assuredly that almost always happens.”

The staff at Strides wouldn’t want it any other way, said McCary.

“When you come outside and can be a part of changing lives, what could be better?”

Visit Strides online at or find them on Facebook.

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