In elementary school, my son was a client at WindWalkers, a local equine learning and therapy center. Once a week, I entrusted him to a team of thoughtful professionals and a pony named Nick. I spent that hour in a scuffed massage chair in a corner of the old office, where I could shut my eyes, shut down my brain and let my worries go. WindWalkers was my introduction to self-care and its critical role in the life of a special-needs parent.
Nearly a decade later, as WindWalkers moves toward introducing a soft capital campaign to raise the $2 million needed to purchase the property it leases, respite remains an important aspect of its program.
“We know we’re not just healing individuals,” says executive director Gabrielle Greeves. “We’re healing a family. They find this to be their place, too. Some parents want to pick up a muck fork or walk their dogs or sometimes I just find myself holding someone’s hand. We try to make it lighter.”
Now 14 years old, WindWalkers outgrew its original home seven years ago and exchanged the massage chair for a 15-acre property on Missouri Heights with jaw-dropping panoramic views. WindWalkers’ client base ranges from children with physical, cognitive, behavioral or social/emotional needs, to adults with substance dependencies, PTSD or MS.
“Equine assisted therapy positively impacts the emotional, physical, cognitive and social well-being of the rider,” explains program director Beth Gusick, of WindWalkers’ ability to meet such diverse needs. “It improves balance, flexibility, muscle control and confidence along with offering a sense of fun while being on a horse. All these factors are happening simultaneously, which is hard to find in other therapies.”
The center sees nearly 800 unique individuals per year and services clients from as far away as Summit County. On an annual budget of around a half-million dollars, WindWalkers employs a small army of more than a dozen therapy horses, eight staff members, 11 contracted therapists in areas like physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech or licensed clinical social work, and upwards of 70 volunteers a year. The program offers individual and group sessions five to six days a week in both indoor and outdoor arenas. The horses are a critical component to the program both for the physical strength they help build and the emotional connection they can create.
“Sometimes it’s easier to empathize with a horse than a human,” Gusick says. “Sometimes it feels simpler. That horse is never judging you for what you did the other day or what you’ll do tomorrow. They only know you right now. Kids figure that out. That pulls them in and there’s a sense that the horse is a friend.”
Like respite, “relationship” is another key word in the WindWalkers model.
“We began our relationship with WindWalkers about five years ago as we searched for opportunities for our son to experience a positive sense of self and well-being,” says Susan Touchette, who believes so strongly in the program that she joined the board of directors. “What began as therapeutic riding instruction evolved into a relationship with animals and individuals that has changed his life permanently for the better.”
As the program has grown, WindWalkers’ eye has turned toward purchasing its leased property, which has been on the real estate market for 16 years.
“To own it would make more sense,” Gusick says. “The dreams become bigger. Right now we can do this finite amount because that’s what can be sustained.”
The purchase would allow WindWalkers to serve more clients simultaneously and in areas such as mental health, senior care, dementia and school programs. It also would allow for critical facility upgrades as well as the ability to tap into bigger grant opportunities.
“When you lease, you can’t ask someone to help build a sensory trail that might go away,” Gusick says. “There’s a piece that gets held back.”
While WindWalkers moves towards launching its capital campaign, the program always welcomes visitors, volunteers and donations. My son and I will return again soon. It turns out that Nick, the little white pony that my son adored, still works with students on the ranch. While our own time at WindWalkers is over, the lessons garnered have moved with us. For my 40th birthday, I bought my own massage chair. Self-care matters, you see, but sometimes we need others to help show us the way.