Hope on Horseback

By Tara Lanier, College of Veterinary Medicine and Carol Nelson, Office of Communications and Marketing



As she talks, Dena Little frequently calls for Velvet Brown, one of the dogs that lives at Storybook Farm. Velvet Brown is blind, but with the help of Dr. Meredith Voyles, a resident in ophthalmology at Auburn's College of Veterinary Medicine, the lively little Pomeranian has a prosthetic eye.

Auburn University students and faculty have supported Storybook Farm, an equine-assisted therapy center located in Opelika, Ala., since its inception in 2002. There are about 45 animals that live at Storybook and the College of Veterinary Medicine provides for their medical and surgical care.

"Because we've got large and small animals even if they're not going into large animal, everyone can find a niche here," said Little who is founder and director.  "You can always tell the small animal students right when they come.  They're like, 'Oh, look at the dog.'  The students are either into the barn or they're 'where are the dogs?'"

Storybook Farm, where the animals are named after literary characters, is dedicated to children and young adults with terminal and serious illnesses, mental challenges, emotional trauma and grief issues.

"The youngest child is two and the oldest we have riding with us is 28. We sort of branched into young adulthood as she has continued to age.  She has really profound cerebral palsy.  She is the most lovely woman," said Little.  "When she rides it is the only time she is out of her wheelchair, so she loves it from that stand point.  Also she wants to be an example to the children."

There are not many children or young adults at Storybook who are more physically challenged than this rider. Because of the tightness of her muscles, she doesn't sit in a saddle, but rides on a bareback pad on Gulliver, one of the ponies.

Storybook's Hope on Horseback is a free ministry that uses donations to care for the animals, purchase supplies for the sessions and maintain the facility. "Here it's special and tailored to them. Riding enables them to be ordinary, while doing something different. Sometimes the kids are not comfortable talking, particularly the ones with grief issues. If they want to talk, that's great. If they don't, we just move on. People say, 'Are you a counselor?  What is your background?'  And it's not that at all.  It's all equine," said Little.

At Storybook the connection is between the child and the horse. "They have a sense of independence and freedom and a sense of just joy. They're so excited about having the opportunity of being in the spotlight as opposed to being on the sidelines. A lot times if they have a physical disability they can't play soccer or basketball or baseball and do things other kids do," said Little. "Here they are in an environment that's special, but doesn't treat them as special. It's not about having Down Syndrome, or cerebral palsy, or grief, or autism. Everybody's equal on the back of a horse."

Fred Caldwell, an assistant professor in the J.T. Vaughan Large Animal Teaching Hospital, first became associated with Storybook Farm about five years ago. When asked about the learning experience for Auburn's fourth-year veterinary students, he said, "The students do a variety of things from routine preventative healthcare, deworming, vaccinations, and dental care, to working with surgical patients."

Said Little, "Sometimes we work alongside a farrier so the students will come to meet the farrier and talk about lameness issues and situations we're having."

When Storybook horses or animals are referred to the teaching hospital as patients, students look after their care around-the-clock on a daily basis.

"Not only do the students benefit from training to care for these animals, but they also get to see the benefit of what goes beyond the practice of veterinary medicine. It's nice for them to see the community involvement, the community service, the farm provides and to enjoy the aspect of seeing their knowledge and their veterinary care go beyond the animal patient," said Dr. Caldwell.

Since beginning in 2002, Storybook Farm has maintained a member of Auburn's large animal faculty on its board. Dr. Caldwell is a current board member.  Dr. Debra Taylor and Dr. Jennifer Taintor are past members.

The facility served 963 children from east central Alabama and west Georgia last year. "It's very enriching to know you are maybe making an impact in their lives," said Little. "We think about our ministry being totally centered around the kids and their families, but a couple of years after I started I realized our ministry also reaches out to volunteers.

"Whether they're vet students or students from the university, it allows them to step outside their comfort zone and what occupies their mind and to step into someone else's shoes. What I hope to leave them after they finish volunteering or after they graduate is that they can make an impact in their community. You don't have to be able to donate $200,000 to a charity to make a difference. You don't have to be greatly gifted in any area. God uses you if you are willing and able," said Little.

During the farm calls, Little tells veterinary students their time at Storybook is an opportunity for personal growth. "Certainly I want them to utilize the knowledge they've gained in the classroom for the horses, but sometimes they'll come out when we're in session and play with the kids and show them the (ambulatory) truck and they get to take a temperature, or listen to a heartbeat, or feel this, or feel that. That is what I think veterinary medicine is about and it translates beyond the horse, the owner, to the kids.  Because you know they'll be working with situations where there's a heartbroken little girl whose pony's hurt and they need to understand the relationship goes deeper than just the horse."

Approximately 150 volunteers come to Storybook Farm on a weekly basis.  "We served almost a thousand children last year and without the support of the university, and particularly the vet college, we couldn't have done it," said Little. "We've met a lot of students and have stayed in relationships with them after they've graduated.  Dr. Taylor just left and she had a student with her who's graduating in May who said, 'Can I volunteer with you?  I'll be in the area and I would love to come and work with you.  What can I do and how often can I come?'"

That personal commitment is what Dr. Caldwell sees as a benefit for the fourth-year students who take care of Storybook's horses at the large animal hospital or come on the ambulatory calls.  "Our students are able to see the impact of their work and to see the big picture in regard to community," said Dr. Caldwell. "Hopefully wherever life leads they take a little bit of Storybook with them."

Storybook Farm is a 501(c)(3) IRS-approved charitable organization that provides equine-assisted therapeutic activities. The 25-acre equine facility is a member of the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association; instructors are NARHA-certified. Visit www.hopeonhorseback.org for more information.

Last Updated: July 7, 2011

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