Riders gently guide their horses and weave through obstacles around the outdoor arena. Some look determined. Others sit triumphantly. To outsiders it may have appeared like an ordinary scene in rural Hernando, but the horses at this ranch are changing lives “one ride at a time.”
The Southern Reins Center for Equine Therapy, a local nonprofit whose aim is to help individuals with physical, cognitive and emotional disabilities gain life skills while working with horses, hosted its second annual DeSoto Horse Show Thursday evening at its satellite campus on Lynch Ranch, located at 2910 Fogg Road South.
Southern Reins began in Nesbit in 2015 when Executive Director Jill Haag and several others recognized the benefits of equine therapy and saw a need in the community.
“When we all kind of met each other, there was not really a dedicated nonprofit who was doing this kind of work,” said Haag.
Floodwaters forced the organization to move temporarily to Lynch Ranch in the spring of 2016, and tremendous growth prompted them to expand to a 28-acre property in Collierville, Tennessee in January 2018. However, they were reluctant to move their operations entirely to Collierville because they still wanted to meet the needs of their DeSoto County residents.
“We were very sad because we had had such awesome roots here in DeSoto County, and Gary Lynch and the whole Lynch family were so supportive,” said Ginna Rauls, community engagement director for Southern Reins.
Gary Lynch had been a volunteer at the original Nesbit location and had seen the benefits of the organization firsthand. Soon after, his son Noah, who owns the Lynch Ranch, offered his property to Southern Reins for a DeSoto campus so that they could continue to expand in Collierville while also continuing to easily serve the county’s residents. The ranch, which mainly trains and breaks horses, now partners up with Southern Reins two days a week.
“We didn’t want to see it completely leave DeSoto County,” Noah Lynch said. “My dad was real big in it. When they left, him being so involved in it, he didn’t want it to leave, and I had been up there some and the guy that helps me actually works at the old location. I had been around it and had just really saw what it does for the participants. The volunteers and myself and everybody else involved gets so much out of seeing what it does for the participants.”
Lynch said that seeing how the organization benefits others has been “amazing.”
“We want it to stay,” Lynch said. “It’s amazing seeing a kid go from being nonverbal to putting them on a horse and seeing them talk for the first time, seeing the kid that’s in a wheelchair that mentally is all there but physically he has limitations being in a wheelchair. Putting him on a horse, he’s no different than any other kid. That’s pretty amazing.”
Those at Southern Reins have seen many success stories over the course of its existence. Haag recounted how one young woman with cerebral palsy whose goal was to be able to live independently was able to improve the use of her arms and hands, brush her teeth for the first time in her life and start doing laundry after working with a horse. Adam Lynch, brother of Noah Lynch, noted how he saw one boy with autism go from being completely nonverbal at the beginning of his time at Southern Reins to eventually giving his horse a command – the first words he had ever heard him utter. He saw another young man go from having complete meltdowns to having a sense of calm.
The organization offers seven main types of programs. Therapeutic horseback riding, which draws the largest number of participants, teaches basic riding skills and how to become a rider. Hippotherapy uses the horse as part of a medical treatment plan and utilizes the horse’s movement to provide occupational therapy to clients. Unbridled horsemanship, which is offered to participants who cannot ride, don’t want to ride or exceed the weight limit, lets them learn about and groom the horses, work with the horses on the grounds, and learn about natural horse communication. Silver Stirrups, typically offered to senior citizens or those that have Alzheimer’s, allows groups to come to the farm, take a tour, learn about the horses and participate in hands-on activities. The Making Strides Recreation Therapy Program, in partnership with Youth Villages, teaches coping skills to at-risk youth. Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy provides mental health services.
A veterans’ program called Equine Services of Heroes is also offered at no cost. Haag said that it’s rewarding to see those with PTSD or a traumatic brain injury “come out of their shell” and begin communicating.
The goal of Southern Reins is to use horses to enhance the physical, cognitive, emotional and social well-being of participants. Holding a horse’s reins can improve hand-eye coordination, dexterity and muscle tone and can allow cerebral palsy patients to stretch their muscles and improve their physical ability as they learn how to steer. Haag said that a horse can also give someone “legs that they lack.”
“If they use a wheelchair, they can get up and it gives their body a sense of what it is like to walk,” said Haag. “A horse has the closest gait to a natural human gait. If you have someone who has a limitation because they use a wheelchair, when they get up on that horse, it also provides an awesome, different change of perspective. Instead of always looking up at everyone, they get to look down. That’s very empowering.”
Horses also teach important skills like eye contact and nonverbal communication to those with autism because riders must communicate in many tactile and verbal ways to their horses. Touch is also a powerful skill that develops, as the riders can stroke the smooth texture of a horse’s coat.
“We’ve had several participants when we ask what they like about coming out to Southern Reins they say, ‘Well because my horse doesn’t talk back and they listen to me,’ and we say ‘Well why do you think they listen to you?’” said Haag. “It’s because they have become a good communicator with their horse.”
Haag said that riding also provides a sense of empowerment because many children with disabilities can’t participate in recreational activities like other kids and riding is an activity that they can call their own and be proud of and where they can be the focus.
“Whenever anyone is on property at Southern Reins, whichever campus that may be, there is no disability,” said Haag. “We focus solely on their ability.”
Southern Reins has worked with people anywhere from age 3 all the way to age 88. Having originally started with 12 participants, they served 143 people between both campuses this spring. About 15 of them participated at the Hernando location.
“We have a roster of about 220 who participate in sessions and we get to serve throughout the year, so obviously there is a demand for it and we’re just grateful to have a chance to do something awesome in the community that kind of gives us back a whole lot too,” said Haag.
Thursday’s horse show was an opportunity for participants in the 10-week spring session to celebrate and show off all of the skills that they have learned.
Kathleen Holland, who was one of the participants in Thursday’s event, grew up riding horses and began coming to Southern Reins in 2016. Holland, one of their most accomplished riders, loves animals, and her face lights up every time she talks about the horses.
“It’s like if there’s something troubling me, it just sort of melts away when I come here and ride and groom,” said Holland. “It’s just like a dream come true.”
Brent Walker is Staff Writer for the DeSoto Times-Tribune.