STORY and photos BY nancy Mcguire.
“Horses. Humans. Hope.” motto reflects Equest’s mission succinctly. Through the human/horse connection, Equest hopes to develop a special bond to bring healing to children and adults with special needs, whether it is physical, mental or emotional.
Over the last 40 years, the equine therapy program has evolved from a one-day event to an organization with a multitude of full-time and part-time employees, several contract therapists and hundreds of volunteers who are the life-blood of all that they do. By meeting each student’s individual needs, the programs at Equest use the warm and gentle nature of horses to help students overcome physical limitations or help heal emotional and mental trauma.
Founded in 1981 by Evelyn Zembrod and Susan Schwartz, the Freedom Ride Foundation (FRF), as it was originally known as, consisted of one instructor, one horse and a few volunteers. FRF provided children with cerebral palsy with an opportunity to ride the horse. The women began to realize the leg muscles of the children were loosening during the ride, and they were engaging their core muscles to maintain balance — two big hurdles to overcome when confined to a wheelchair most of the time. From this small event, Evelyn and Susan realized there was so much more they could do and thus, they developed the first equine therapy program in Texas.
Within three short years, FRF had expanded to accommodate almost 100 clients and six horses. It was in this year they affiliated with the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA) and even sent two of their riders to Team USA-International Games for the Disabled in New York. In 1986, the name was officially changed to Equest and in the following year, Lili Kellogg applied to be an instructor.
When Kellogg arrived for her interview, she was surprised to learn that Equest’s programs were geared toward those physically challenged. She was worried she didn’t have the skills or knowledge the job required.
“My first impression was I would just be leading a horse and student around the riding arena. I quickly learned it involved so much more,” said Kellogg.
Equine therapy was a relatively new concept at the time. She soon learned that horses, like humans, have a multi-dimensional movement base, meaning those clients with an abnormal gait can benefit from the rhythm of a horse’s walk and potentially improve their functional mobility. This is just one of many benefits provided through Equest’s multi-faceted approach to address each client’s needs.
Over the course of the next twenty or so years, Equest kept growing, serving more clients each year through their expanded program offerings and increasing staff to facilitate their growth. This growth included services in physical therapy, occupational therapy, veteran services and an outreach program using mini ponies as organization ambassadors. This programming expansion also required the acquisition of more horses, at one point operating out of two separate facilities.
Moving from instructor to program manager, Kellogg became an integral member of the organization. She beams remembering breakthrough stories like the time one non-verbal autistic client spoke their first words while riding in class. Or the skeptical veteran who warmed up to therapy when one of the horses, named Mac, came alongside him and rested his head on the gentleman’s shoulder. Scientific studies have shown that horses have an instinctual ability to ease fear and feel empathy toward humans, something known as “therapeutic silence”.
Equest found its forever home at the Texas Horsepark at the Trinity in 2015, consolidating all their operations under one roof. They have continued to grow, recently adding a second riding arena through a major donation from Al G. Hill Jr..
Although Kellogg left Equest for a short time, she was drawn back and eventually promoted to CEO. She now devotes most of her time to pursuing grant opportunities, searching for funding sources and community engagement activities, readying the organization for the next leader who will continue to move Equest forward. She muses about her auspicious start, never thinking it would turn into a life-long devotion. As she explained the way a rider and their horse can synchronize their heartbeats, it seems as if Kellogg’s heartbeat is in sync with Equest.
Visit the Equest website to find more information on the programs as well as information on how you can help further their mission though donating or volunteering.