Time in the saddle leads to healing, learning

By: Melea Reicks Licht

Hailey Gandrup leads Dilly, a patient Arabian gelding, around the arena. Jensen, a seven-year-old rider at One Heart Equestrian Therapy, looks down beaming. He’s ready to ride.

One Heart, based just north of Ames, Iowa, offers equine-assisted therapeutic activities for children and adults with disabilities.

Gandrup, a junior in animal science, is a student in Animal Science 415, Equine Systems Management. The capstone course teaches students how to develop financial and production goals by featuring a variety of speakers from the equine industry. Students can gain hands-on experience and extra credit by volunteering for One Heart Equestrian Therapy, Inc.

“Working with participants at One Heart has given me a new perspective on a horse’s purpose,” says Carlie Wasmund, senior in animal science. “So many of us see them as an athlete or pet, whereas One Heart uses them as a tool for therapy.”

Instructor Jill Paxton, assistant teaching professor in animal science, says this class helps provide a real-world experience to seniors preparing to transition into the workforce.

“The class invites 15 different guest speakers from a wide range of businesses, who volunteer to speak to our students about their life experiences. The students further develop practical experience and character as they visit and volunteer at businesses and nonprofits, such as One Heart,“ says Paxton. “Some of the 415 students, who were also on the Iowa State Intercollegiate Horse Show Association (IHSA) western equestrian team, enjoyed their volunteer time at One Heart so much they recruited other members of the team to come out to One Heart and work with them.”

Gaining confidence, skills

One Heart Equestrian Therapy rider Jensen, atop Dude, an Arabian gelding, is led by Hailey Gandrup (right) and Heather Marz (center) with the Iowa State Equestrian Team. Students can gain hands-on experience and extra credit by volunteering for One Heart Equestrian Therapy, Inc.

Kris Lager, founder of One Heart Equestrian Therapy, launched the nonprofit based on a dream and a need that she personally understood as the mother of a special needs child.

“One of the most inspiring things about One Heart is the support we’ve received from local community groups,” Lager says. “We run almost entirely on donations and with volunteer workers. The Iowa State student volunteers bring a lot of energy to our programs and facility.”

One Heart provides a wide variety of therapeutic riding services such as developmental riding classes for children and adults with physical or intellectual disabilities, driving classes for those who cannot ride and horsemanship classes with mini horses for individuals unable to ride.

Lager says equestrian therapy has been shown to increase participants’ mobility, confidence and self-esteem, which benefits other areas of their lives. One Heart is a member center of the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH) International and is currently home to eight horses and five miniature horses. One Heart celebrates their 20th anniversary this year.

Iowa State students learn unique techniques for handling therapeutic horses while providing essential support for One Heart. Students help lead horses and serve as side-walkers during therapy sessions to help participants follow directions. They also assist with facility care, clean tack and manage volunteer schedules. Many of the student volunteers are also members of the Iowa State Equestrian Club – Western Team. The club recently took on a special service project at One Heart to assess recently donated, potential therapy horses.

“Working with One Heart has provided us with a completely different perspective for working with horses and has challenged us to change how we handle and train them,” says Wasmund, who also serves as secretary of the ISU Equestrian Club. “The first night we worked with (horses) Dilly and Dude we realized we all had to adjust our usual riding style to a different type of riding for One Heart’s therapy horses.”

Lager says she has a great relationship with many Iowa State student groups such as Block and Bridle, the Horse Interest Group, Rodeo Club, Pre-vet Club and the equestrian teams, but she welcomes student involvement from any discipline.

Building a business

In addition to service learning opportunities, Equine Systems Management prepares students for running a successful business in the equine industry.

Paxton requires students to complete a 40-page business plan tailored to their specific interests.

“Animal Science 415 helped me define what would make my business unique,” says Paige Gilster (’17 animal science), founder of Blu-Sky Stables. “Our instructor, Jill Paxton, allowed students to gain further knowledge in areas we were most interested in. The financial portion of the class helped me better understand business growth rate, cost analysis and how a solid business plan can make your larger goals come to life.”

Having solid business knowledge and hands-on experience was something Gilster says helped her prove herself in the industry. The business model she developed while a student focuses on finding sub-par broodmares and making them first class through her selective breeding requirements.

Paxton says the goal of the course is to provide a well-rounded foundation for students through practical experience, a solid business plan and a service mentality.

“This course is unique in that it builds on the business side of the industry while much of their undergraduate experience in animal science provided hands-on opportunities with animals and research,” Paxton says. “Each student is allowed to work individually or in a group to create a business plan of their choice that is detailed enough to submit to a lender or future partner. Every year, I hear from students who successfully used their business plans.”