FAIRMONT – On Eagles’ Wings, a non-profit organization that uses horseback riding to help people with disabilities, celebrated the completion of their new barn to house their miniature horses.
To celebrate the completion of the barn, the group invited guests to a ribbon cutting ceremony on Thursday.
Funding for the barn came from a grant from the Milan Puskar Foundation, a newly formed organization with a mission to “improve the quality of life in the state of West Virginia.”
“The Milan Puskar Foundation grant allowed us to move the miniature horses here, so that they can be on the same farm as our full-sized horses,” said Development Director Casey Conaway.
The new barn for ‘minis’ will alleviate some of the logistical challenges the group has faced. Until this barn was completed, the miniature horses lived on the family farm of Nancy Hickman, a recently retired physiotherapist.
After years of working with people and horses and certification in Hippotherapy – horseback riding used to help patients improve coordination, balance or strength – Hickman took on the role of primary caregiver for the minis.
Now that the barn is complete, the minis will leave Hickman’s farm to join the grown-ups on the 14-acre campus.
Miniature horses are not used for equestrian therapy, but rather for awareness. Known for their passivity, miniature horses can also travel easily. Outreach opportunities can include visits to hospitals, schools, libraries, or nursing homes – all places where big horses can feel a little uncomfortable.
As an example of the role of miniatures in raising awareness, a mini, Stormy, visited a local library. “It was called ‘Stories with Stormy’,” Conaway said. “It’s part of our literacy program. She doesn’t judge, so if you have trouble pronouncing certain words, she doesn’t mind.
At the ribbon cutting, Stormy took a walk with Hickman. But there’s one thing that takes Stormy away from her one adorable job – weed.
“When we’re doing therapeutic activities with it, we’re usually inside a building,” Hickman said. “She works much better indoors. If she’s near the grass, she’s not paying attention to anything else.
Stormy’s two siblings, Blue and Toby, will also soon be enjoying their new home at On Eagles’ Wings Farm.
While awareness raising is important for the community to understand the value of Horse Assisted Therapy, the majority of the work is done in the facility with the 14 full size horses.
Horse-assisted therapy can encompass much more than horseback riding. “It’s therapeutic riding, but it’s also horse-assisted learning and mental health,” said Conaway. “Horse-assisted learning is not riding, but actually learning to ride, learning to interact with the horse while your feet are on the ground.”
Participants experience horse care by undertaking tasks such as grooming and driving. Through these horse-assisted activities, “they learn about team building, leadership development and character development,” said Conaway.
“We provide these services to people with cognitive, physical or psychosocial disabilities,” said Conaway. “At any point in our lives, any of us could go through a season when we needed such help. “
As research into equine assisted therapy continues to develop, published data indicates benefits on several levels. For example, the pace of a horse’s step can be calming for a rider. Leading a horse while walking can help with balance. And, probably the most important and well-known is the relationship that is built between a person and a horse. Horses are known for their gentleness, sensitivity and insight. These traits help people with psychosocial disabilities.
The Executive Director of the Milan Puskar Foundation, Lori Maynard, was on hand to share the celebration.
“Our foundation was just launched in January 2020,” Maynard said. “Casey asked me if I could go out and visit the place, so I did. She had talked about the basic things they needed, like shoes for the horses, and I said, “What is your great need? And she said a barn for miniature horses.
“I asked him to get me the numbers and let me present them to the board,” Maynard said. “So the advice went with [the barn], thinking it would have the most impact. They needed $ 44,000, and that covered it.
“These horses make things stand out in people,” Maynard said. “Stormy was working with a stroke victim who hadn’t spoken, and Stormy rested her head on the woman and made her say her first word. And how the children react. They learn so much more than horses.
“It’s a great organization. Everyone is so passionate about it.
Passion is certainly at the rendezvous at On Eagles’ Wings. Stephanie VanGilder is one of the many instructors at the facility. “It’s the career that has always interested me,” said VanGilder. “I just never knew where to start, so here it is, it was in the woods right in my backyard. “
VanGilder spent her childhood riding horses and said she “always loved” them. She is part of the PATH (Professional Association of Therapeutic Riding) program and obtained her certification as a Therapeutic Riding Instructor in August 2020.
“I’ve always loved helping others and I’ve always loved horses,” said VanGilder, “so it’s a great job for me.”