SOUTHERN INDIANA — A drenching rain fell on more than 150,000 raucous fans at Churchill Downs on Saturday as they cheered on a field of muscular, lightning-fast horses jockeying for position at a ferocious pace while racing toward the finish line of the 144th Kentucky Derby.
That same rain steadily pelted a picturesque pasture in Jeffersonville where older, slower, rescued and even blind horses of many colors dotted the landscape eating grass.
It was a tale of two cities in two states in two remarkably different worlds — yet only 15 miles apart.
The frenzy of thoroughbred Justify’s triumphant moment in the global spotlight at the fabled racetrack was a stark contrast to the calming effect of the meandering, low-key horses who are their own kind of heroes at Hunters Brook Farm.
Every day, these horses help give new life to struggling humans in countless ways through a non-profit organization called Opening Gates, which offers equine-assisted counseling and learning at low-cost rates for the community at the farm, located at 5006 Charlestown Pike.
Each horse plays an important role in Opening Gates, whether it is by serving in the actual equine therapy program working with participants or by supporting the therapy work’s much-needed financial foundation that comes in through the farm’s horse camps, riding lessons and boarding services.
Owner Shara Wiesenauer said Hunters Brook Farm has been in her family for more than 100 years. It was started by her grandparents, and it was officially made a working farm in 2007.
That’s the same year when Wiesenauer — who is an Indiana licensed mental health counselor, EAGALA (Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association) certified counselor and a horse specialist — began Opening Gates to serve the greater community that surrounds the farm.
With a mission to promote growth and learning to individuals and groups through equine-assisted counseling in the natural setting of the horse farm, more than 100 hours a month of volunteer time — including Wiesenauer’s — goes into helping more than several hundred Opening Gates participants a year.
Wiesenauer said she is thankful for her human volunteers, as well as all her customers who use the various services her farm offers so that Opening Gates can continue to serve those in need of help.
Even more, she is grateful for the eclectic mix of horses with varying personalities and strengths she has to work with her Opening Gates clients.
“Our therapy horses are retired and/or rescued horses with different life experiences and personalities,” according to the program’s website.
PUTTING THE FUN IN THERAPY
The theory of equine-assisted therapy is that horses are non-judgmental and non-verbal. Therapy is done “on the ground,” so a client’s skills at riding and knowledge of horses are not issues. It’s about the human-horse bond.
Clients are paired with a therapy horse (or horses) selected for them after an interview with an Opening Gates counselor. No experience with horses is necessary, and all counseling is done under the supervision of the counselor and a horse specialist.
This is not physical therapy, Wiesenauer stressed. Instead, Opening Gates provides mental health services that can often seem like fun more than therapy.
However, it is a proven therapy method to helping people address and work through a variety of problems, issues, setbacks and struggles.
Wiesenauer said clients range in age from 3 to adults, and counseling services are offered for individuals, families and groups. Clients can be self-referred or they can come to the program through a professional referral.
Anger management, behavioral issues, self-esteem struggles, childhood obesity, leadership development and teamwork training are among the many topics of learning and growth offered by the various Opening Gates programs. Math and reading tutoring for elementary age and special education students is even covered.
Along with the donated time of Wiesenauer and multiple volunteers, she stressed it’s the money earned from the horseback-riding lessons, summer camps and horse boarding at Hunters Brook Farm that supports the crucial work being done at Opening Gates.
“Hunters Brook is the backbone,” she said.
At other facilities, Wiesenauer said, individual sessions of equine-assisted therapy averages $110 per session and groups sessions average $40 per session.
Prices are more accommodating for the public at Opening Gates than most, Wiesenauer said.
The rate is $40 for individual sessions and $15 for group sessions per session, she said, “which is less than what most co-pays even are.”
She added, “Opening Gates prices are even cheaper than traditional talk therapy where there’s just a therapist only — and we have a therapist, at least one horse specialist and at least one horse in every session.”
There are countless success stories that have come out of being Hunters Brook Farm customers and Opening Gates clients, Wiesenauer said.
Here is one of those stories.
ACHIEVING THE IMPOSSIBLE
“Growing up, I was always the little girl that wanted to stop the car and look at horses. I always felt a gravitational pull to them. My daughter inherited that from me I suppose,” says Hope Lawson of Clarksville.
She is one of those people who unexpectedly found a better life through Hunters Brook Farm and Opening Gates.
It all started quite simply: “We wanted to surprise my daughter with horseback riding lessons for her 5th birthday,” Lawson said.
“My mother drives past Hunters Brook Farm on her way to church every week and mentioned that it looked like a good place for her to take lessons.”
While Lawson herself has always been a horse lover, she never imagined her now 7-year-old daughter Miah’s adventures at the farm would lead to both of their lives being transformed by the love of — and from — horses.
“When she began taking lessons there, I was so happy to be able to give her something I could never have had,” she said. “I had no idea that her riding lessons would one day have the impact on my life it has.”
That deep impact came in multiple ways first through a white palomino rescue horse named Snake.
“As humans we have a natural disposition to think that certain things are simply impossible,” Lawson said. “I always thought owning a horse was out of the realm of possibility for me.”
But, it wasn’t. Buying Snake last September was a dream come true for Lawson.
“Shara has a way of perfectly matching horses with people, and I think she knew he was supposed to be my horse before I did,” Lawson said. “I think this skill definitely carries through into the therapy program because she always knows what horse is perfect to work with each child.”
The benefits that have come with horse ownership are immeasurable to Lawson.
“When Snake came into my life, it changed my world,” she said. “My daughter and I spent more time outside together doing something we both love. My daughter was able to teach me everything she had learned from her lessons, and I was blown away by how much she knew.”
She also learned many lessons from Snake himself.
“Not only has he made us see the world differently, and he became not only a part of our life but also a part of our family,” she said. “As the time has gone by and the seasons have changed he is still teaching us new things.”
She said they have watched him go from “a little underweight and shy to a very healthy weight and full of personality.”
More so, they have felt a true bond develop between them and their intuitive horse.
“We learned that he not only sees us and hears us, but he senses our emotions also,” she said. “Horses have a little magic in their souls. You can’t lie to them with your words because they know your heart.”
She went on to explain how he helps her cope with the busyness and stress of everyday life.
“No matter what I feel, he knows it and his behavior changes accordingly. In this way, sometimes I have to let things go. Stress, anxiety and frustration don’t fit into his world,” she said.
“If I intend to accomplish anything with him, all of that has to go out the window. If I’m feeling down or sad, he knows that too, and he is a little softer on those days. When I’m happy he seems to get really frisky, and he feeds off of that energy as well.”
She shared that “Horses helping humans, one stride at a time” is the motto for the Opening Gates Therapy — and Lawson feels that she and her daughter both are living proof of that statement.
“Horses are intuitive and curious by nature,” Lawson said. “Something most people don’t realize is that they are individuals, their personalities vary just like ours do.”
She believes these horses connect so well with the Opening Gates clients because they are kindred spirits.
“The thing I think is so great about the horses that are used in the therapy program is that they come from so many different backgrounds they are relatable to kids from all walks of life,” she said.
“Some of these horses went through horrible experiences that had a lasting impact on their lives and, because of this, they can help kids see that — although life situations may have an impact — they don’t define who you are.”
She said the horse appeal goes beyond helping children.
“Those horses are great with setting boundaries and teaching kids about problem solving,” she said. “And, at 32 years old, one old horse made me believe in myself and taught me that the only limitations in life are the ones we give ourselves.”
It has amazed her.
“If one horse can change my life that way, I know that the therapy horses at Opening Gates have the capability to change the lives of the children of our community who need it the most.”
In addition to Snake, there’s been another horse that has greatly enhanced Lawson’s life.
“My daughter wanted to sponsor an Opening Gates horse for Christmas, it was actually the only thing she asked Santa for. So being that it was Christmas, Frosty fit perfectly,” she said. “Opening Gates offers several sponsorship levels and, through this experience, Frosty and I became very close.”
Even though Snake has benefited Lawson in countless ways, she found her time with Frosty has transformed her as well.
Frosty is blind and is partnered up with Lady. “She his seeing-eye horse,” Lawson said. “She keeps him safe and guides him.”
Despite Frosty being blind, Lawson said, “I think he sees me clearer than anyone ever has. He is sweet, and soft and soothing and so willing to just soak up any love or attention you want to give him.”
Lawson feels Frosty has benefited both her and her daughter.
“He is a special horse, I think that knowing he would one day go blind, God must have poured a little extra magic into his soul,” she said. “My daughter truly enjoyed the experience of sponsoring a horse, but I gained a lifelong friend.”
Lawson now sponsors another horse named Deuce. “But, I volunteer at the farm every week and help groom the horses,” she said.
“So, Frosty and I still spend a lot of time together that way. We truly enjoy each other’s company, we listen to music together, laugh together well he nickers, I laugh. He knows my voice and will follow it blindly anywhere without hesitation. He loves me and I him, it is a bind like no other.”