Horsepower: organization changes lives one ride at a time


Abigail Abantohollans

Horsepower volunteers guide a rider and his horse. Horsepower’s mission is to increase the quality of life for people with life challenges through equine-related activities.// Photo by Abigail Abantohollans/The Guilfordian

“(Watching) every child … get on the horse becomes your favorite memory because you watch how they respond and how they come to life,” said volunteer Jan Byrd.

Located in Colfax, North Carolina, Horsepower Therapeutic Learning Center is a nonprofit organization that provides therapeutic horseback riding, along with other therapy and team building programs, to both individuals with disabilities and individuals that are able-bodied. Horsepower provides a community of support and encouragement for those with physical, emotional, intellectual and social disabilities.

The horses at the organization offer volunteers and participants a unique opportunity to build new relationships.

“I was a horse-crazy girl that never grew out of the horse-crazy phase,” said Horsepower’s Outreach Coordinator Val Pinchot. “And these horses are saints. They get chosen for our program. Not every horse can be a therapy horse, so all our horses are donated. We only accept about, I think, one out of every 30 horses that are offered to us because they have to have the best personality and be really loving.”

In the classes at Horsepower, riders work to overcome challenges and accomplish goals with the help of the horses, volunteers and instructors.

“I think they have a unique ability to sense people in how they feel,” said Jan Clifford, founder and executive director. “And that’s why they work so good for therapeutic riding because they know when somebody has pain or a special need, and they love to feel that need.”

The horses are used to assist in therapy and other objectives that may need to be addressed for the certain riders.

“Sitting on the back of the horse, it’s the strongest freedom,” said Byrd. “You could move a thousand pounds with the touch of a finger. And (the horses) have so much sensitivity … they can sense if you’re afraid, they can sense if you’re angry, they can sense if you don’t know what you’re doing, for sure.”

Horseback riding provides all riders with physical benefits because the walking motion of the horse’s exercises strengthens different muscles, including those of the trunk, neck and legs. The movement of the horses also produces a calming effect in the riders as the horses may also provide emotional and intellectual benefits to the riders.

“The improvements we’ve seen in riders are daily,” said Clifford. “We’ve seen people walk and talk that were told they never would.

“We’ve seen people that were told they were going to have to have spinal surgeries, (but after working at Horsepower), the doctors said they didn’t have to because their spines no longer were curving. We’ve seen improvement in our services because of the communities reaching out more, and we’re offering more services to different challenges that people have.”

Horsepower has helped people with autism, cerebral palsy, spinal cord injuries, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease and Down syndrome. These riders and their families typically attend classes at Horsepower weekly as a part of the six-week long sessions that are offered each season of the year.

“I think the most emotional thing that happened to me is when we had a little girl, … the doctor said … (she) was brain dead,” said Clifford. “And she queued her horse to walk on, so we knew that she had some brain activity and that we were reaching her. I think that was the most impactful thing that happened to me.”

A new facility for Horsepower is currently underway as Clifford and the Horsepower community hope to continue expanding the program along with its impact on the community.

“We are building a new facility and my desire, my dream, my goal is to have it completed while I am in charge, to make sure that it is here when I’m gone,” said Clifford. “Some people like to leave a legacy for personal reasons, I want to just make sure that it is here for the community members …

“We are always looking at how we can make enough money to pay our bills, so we’re kind of limited on what we can do here. We can have more riding services here, we can do more fundraisers, we can be more reliant on what we can do as opposed to what we can’t do.”

In bringing together a community of diverse riders, volunteers, families and supporters, Horsepower continues to grow as it provides individuals and community members with support and encouragement, along with a sense of security and belonging.

“(We’ve) really grown in the community, just since I’ve been here so I really hope, especially when we move, we can expand our program even more,” said Pinchot. “I love even the impact that having volunteers come out here, seeing them grow. Volunteering is a passion of mine … You think that you’re going to give back as a volunteer, but really you get a lot more. And you’re also impacting people’s lives, so giving people that opportunity to volunteer … I think will be very beneficial, just to give kids a chance.”

Along with its therapeutic riding, speech therapy and programs for veterans, Horsepower’s volunteer program plays a significant role in the organization and its community.

“I love the idea of being able to walk alongside the students,” said volunteer Maria Dibenedetto. “They get a lot of joy out of being on the horses, and it’s just very rewarding.”

In an effort to serve others and promote a sense of community, Horsepower provides people with an engaging and enriching experience through offering therapeutic horseback riding to those with disabilities.

“When you watch these children who can’t walk,” said Byrd. “And most … of them are autistic, and then there’s Down syndrome, blind, wheelchair bound, paraplegic, and … they get on the back of that horse and they can feel. They have legs, they have eyesight … The thing that makes me want to be here is that I am blessed more than the people that come here when (I) see what it does for these children.”