STONEWALL — Something magical happens when you get on a horse, whether it is the sense of the freedom you feel, the adventure you are about to take riding a 1,000-pound animal, or the knowledge that with love and trust, the horse will always take care of you. For children and adults with special needs, horse therapy is just that and so much more.
In the small town of Stonewall, a therapeutic horse ranch specializes in helping children and adults with special needs — physical, cognitive or emotional. The Longhorn Center (TLC) Equine Therapy is a non-profit organization owned and operated by Amy Cusack, a full-time music teacher at Stonewall Public School. She has graciously opened her ranch to help others thrive. She is trained and certified in Equine-Assisted Activities and Therapies (EAAT) as are her horses and volunteers. She and her assistant, Kandy Bird, who is a Stonewall special education teacher, work with numerous children Monday through Saturday to help them excel in learning. They help children with reading, math, spelling and everyday problem solving.
Today, Harley Cooper, 9, a Stonewall School student, is getting help with his balance and learning the number five on horseback, while placing rings over a safety cone and counting. These children are more than eager to get on a horse, even in the misting rain.
"Buddy is my favorite!" grins Cooper.
The program also helps develop trunk muscles and mental alertness.
"A lot of the time, it is just putting them in a different learning atmosphere." explains Cusack. "Sometimes a child that is having trouble connecting in the classroom can come out here and really excel."
Since the program started in 2009, the ages of folks Cusack has worked with range from 3 to 60 years. TLC currently serves 11 school districts and provides private lessons as well. The whole center operates through donations and the more they get, the more TLC will continue to grow. Cusack plans to put in a covered arena someday, and start an equine program for disabled veterans in need of assistance to be run by veteran volunteers. TLC also plans to have some of its clients compete in Special Olympics someday.
The volunteers are kids and adults from Stonewall, Byng, Ada and the surrounding area. TLC is always looking for more volunteers.
"Some days, I have to cancel a lesson because I don't have enough volunteers," Cusack explains. The program strongly depends on help from others. Without volunteers, the program would not exist. Each volunteer has to go through safety training to know and understand the needs of the children and the horses. "Safety is always our number one goal," says Cusack.
The TLC program is currently working with three horses, Buddy, Joey and BJ. Buddy is Cusack's 30-year-old retired barrel horse, a favorite among the kids.
"Buddy loves his job,'' Cusack smiles. The horse specializes in working with younger children and is very patient and kind. Joey, a 6-year-old donated horse was formerly in a cutting horse program but it wasn't the right fit, so he was sent off for extensive therapeutic training and is now back at the ranch. BJ is a 26-year-old retired roping horse, and also a therapy horse that loves his job.
Cusack first got involved in an equine therapy program in Nevada where she taught for 21 years. She witnessed how much working with horses helped the children there and hoped to bring the program to Oklahoma.
“Kids who don't have a lot of success in life can come out and be successful here,” she said. “The animals do not judge or discriminate. They just show love and compassion and sometimes, that is all a kid needs to thrive in life.”
The TLC program offers mounting ramps, which are wheel-chair accessible, and other tools to help customize the needs of anyone wanting to participate in the program. Once the client feels comfortable with a certain step in the program, there is always a new step forward to take, which enables more personal growth. Each lesson lasts thirty minutes. Lessons are personalized to work with the goals and abilities of each rider.
Cusack has a young rider who has been with her for five years and is now able to mount and ride by himself.
If you or someone you know would be interested in volunteering or becoming a client at TLC Equine Therapy center, contact Amy Cusack at (580) 265-4375.
Jeanna Johnston is a local farmer and a freelance writer for The Ada News.