Equine program looking for a few helping hooves
Jeffrey Van Duyn, left, progressed from one person leading his horse and a side walker to riding independently, even riding over the obstacle course. Also pictured are Chad Schuerr, center, and Aaron Van Duyn. (Courtesy)
2/7/2014 6:02:00 AM
KINGNMAN - Growing up on a small ranch in Golden Valley where her family raised halter horses, Kassie Schuerr was riding by the time she could walk, but never planned on training horses for a living.
Indeed, it's a long way from Moorpark College in California, where Schuerr earned degrees in the exotic animal training and management program, to working with dolphins at the Mirage in Las Vegas, to helping people cope with a variety of physical and developmental disabilities through equine therapy.
"When I started out working with exotic animals, I just didn't know where this path would lead," Schuerr said. "My initial goal was to train marine mammals - killer whales in particular, but I enjoyed working, not only with animals, but with the special needs children who visited the habitat as well."
Although Schuerr was happy to have a job in her field, she found that it was not a "family oriented career."
"There were six calves [baby dolphins] born while I was there and the overnights are hard on a family," she said. "Our children were little and we knew we wanted to return to Kingman."
The family did just that in 2004 and Schuerr was hired to work with high anxiety clients in a dental office. She also resumed training horses that year and began working with broad spectrum autistic clients in 2007.
Coincidently, it was after Schuerr began combining her talent for animal training and an affinity for working with disabled persons that Schuerr's daughter was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS).
It was Schuerr's positive experiences pairing animal training and people coping with disabilities, as well as witnessing her daughter's improvement, that lead Schuerr to found Kingman's Healing Hooves in 2010.
"Everything we've gone through prepares us for what we're doing now, and I think I've come full circle with Lindsey, helping her to cope with the constant pain of EDS," she said.
According to Schuerr, it doesn't matter if ones disability is physical or mental, many people can benefit from equine therapy. Those who may not want to ride find becoming engaged with horses and grooming helps to reduce stress and aids in overcoming depression.
She added, "Learning that you can control a big animal - a 1,200-pound horse, builds self-confidence. Our riders overcome high anxiety - even extreme fear, and understand the horse won't run them over. They relax and start learning to read behavior. We've had ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) kids say, 'I feel so calm when I'm here.' People say the program really opens their eyes on how the brain can shut down."
One of the people for whom the program has been an "eye opener" is Elaine Grissom, assistant chief probation officer for Mohave County's juvenile division. According to Grissom, youth who are referred to juvenile court for misdemeanor offenses such as shoplifting and curfew violations can be referred to the program.
"In my experience," said Grissom, "At-risk youth are typically in a state of aggression, defiance and anger. Like people, horses are social animals with these same traits, sometimes stubborn and defiant. We've found that horses provide learning opportunities for troubled teens. This program teaches them responsibility, work ethic, teamwork, and productive use of time. Through working with the animals, the kids gain confidence, increased self-esteem, and learn to take pride in a job well done."
At present, Grissom says Kingman's Healing Hooves provides a very structured program for teens.
"They don't just stand around. It's four hours a day for a two-week period and they must exhibit certain behaviors and have follow-through."
Grissom reports that four out of five youth successfully completed a recent program, with only one youth referred back to juvenile court. "The kids didn't want to leave at the end of the two weeks and offered to stay and do community work service."
The juvenile division is seeking a grant to keep funding equine therapy.
"We believe this provides an effective therapeutic component for youth who have been diagnosed as emotionally disabled, and we've increased use of the program this past year," Grissom said.
Citing the growth of the program and the need in the community, Schuerr said that "an amazing group of volunteers" has urged her to "step out and communicate" to raise awareness about the program and to rally financial support by organizing the group's first fundraiser.
"We want to expand with land and programs, to have more room for horses and people, to get our services to people who can benefit," she said. "Proceeds will fund horse care, including veterinary care, scholarships for riders, and equipment. Helmets must be changed out every 12-18 months and they start at $45 each. Our herd of therapy horses is growing and it takes a lot to care for them. We need diversity with our horses to make a 'best match' with people. We match a horses' strengths to the rider's needs."
Banners line the arena and annual sponsors currently pay $200 a month for the advertising exposure, but Schuerr says it's not enough to keep pace with the growth of the program.
"Our sponsors are on our Facebook page and website and their support helps pay for veterinary care and hay, but we really need to raise money for scholarships. There are so many people who are helped to 'feel better that day' and we won't turn anyone away, but we need help to offset the cost of programs."
Anyone with an interest in sponsoring a specific group such as disabled veterans, battered women, foster children, grandparents raising grandchildren, etc., is encouraged to contact the organization.