Document prepared by Robert Mennell, President of Spirit’s Board of Directors
SPIRIT Open Equestrian Veterans’ Program: Overview
From a veteran’s perspective, SPIRIT’s Veterans’ Program can be summed up as: “we help others, and accidentally help ourselves along the way.” Our program is founded on the basis that many Veterans – as well as active duty, reservists, guardsmen, and first responders – want to continue serving their country, even after they take off their uniform. There are many great organizations for them to continue this service; however, SPIRIT’s mission, and the attributes required to make it succeed, have a special resonance with the service member population. Our Veterans Program allows participants to use their skills to help others, while growing throughout the process.
First and fore mostly, SPIRIT exists solely to help others. Whether it’s helping riders with special needs, children from our community, or other veterans, each volunteer is part of something bigger than themselves. The mission of our Veterans Program is to leverage all of our strengths to make our riders succeed; participants are challenged physically from the manual labor needed to operate our facility, from mucking stalls to building structures. We are mentally challenged when trying to work with a herd of horses who, on a regular basis, have diverging interests from our own. For many of us, the emotional strength is the toughest: many of SPIRIT’s children and their parents fight through incredible hardships every day, and achieving the small victories – sitting up independently, giving a high five, holding the reigns – is both the most draining and the most rewarding experience many of us have ever had.
This continued service creates a healthy foundation from which to grow. Many of our participants avoid Veterans Programs because they don’t want to be seen as a delicate population that needs special handling, discounts at restaurants, or a day to celebrate their sacrifice. While we are humbled by these tokens of respect, the attention makes some of us uncomfortable! SPIRIT provides a way for our Veterans to keep doing what we do best – serving others, mentoring where we can, and becoming better versions of ourselves.
Our Veterans’ Program begins with a simple, informal orientation that lets participants learn about SPIRIT. We begin with a general safety brief, a walk-through of our barn and facilities, and an introduction to the herd. We introduce our other programs – Equine Assisted Learning (EAL), Therapeutic Riding (TR), and Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) – and the types of assistance we provide to address the needs of different riders. From this point, our program is largely non-linear and adaptable to the interests, strengths, and goals of each participant. This is outlined in the diagram below.
Our Veterans’ Program facilitates growth in different areas, strengthening participants while helping others.
Our activities follow four primary tracks, all of which are necessary for SPIRIT to succeed, yet require markedly different skillsets. Veterans can participate in as few or as many tracks as they wish, and they may be at different levels within each track; most participants eventually become involved in different types of activities as they spend more time with SPIRIT.
Most of our Veterans start off with our Labor Projects track. This area is familiar to many of us; it leverages physical strength and manual labor skills core to military service. We generally start off by conducting Farm Operations – mucking stalls, moving hay bales, performing barn and pasture upkeep – as these functions are necessary to sustain the herd. Every few months, we do a larger Development Project to improve our facility or to develop our secondary facility – Sully Farm – where we are preparing to build another barn and pasture. As participants become more familiar with SPIRIT’s Labor Projects, participants grow into a Project Oversight role where they will manage volunteers, ensuring that each project is completed safely and effectively. Our most experienced participants will grow into a Project Planning and Execution role, taking ownership of the project from requirement development, resourcing, and through to project completion.
Once participants learn about SPIRIT and our mission, many quickly realize that Therapy Facilitation is the most special, and challenging, mission we support. Participants begin with Safety and Side-walking, where they will walk alongside a special needs rider to keep them safely on the horse and engaged in the therapeutic riding activities. As our riders become more capable on horseback, our sidewalkers shift from focusing solely on safety to giving riders more space and helping them follow directions from the Lead Instructor. Once our Participants are comfortable sidewalking, we train them on Horse Handling and Leading. Our leaders focus on the horse, keeping both the horse and the rider safe throughout the session. As program participants become increasingly proficient as leaders and sidewalkers, and they become more familiar with their riders, participants will become capable of Independent Instruction under the guidance of the Lead Instructor. In this role, participants direct the rider to perform different stretches and therapeutic exercises within the prescribed scope of their activities. Finally, participants interested in becoming a Lead Instructor can obtain a Therapeutic Certification through Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH Intl.).
If so inclined, Veterans can learn horsemanship through our Equine Activities track. Participants start with fundamental Horse Care and Grooming, learning the basics of how to keep our herd healthy and happy. Once participants learn how to safely interact with horses in a closely controlled and monitored environment, they can build upon that knowledge through Dismounted Interaction where we lead our horses on foot, with and without lead ropes. This phase of learning can be particularly enlightening; for many of our current members, it was the first time we couldn’t face a challenge with sheer strength and determination. This required us to learn how to build a relationship, to communicate, and to understand how others perceive our actions. Once comfortable working with horses on foot, our participants can get in the saddle and learn how to ride. Participants will become competent in tacking and untacking, performing pre-mounting checks, and safely mounting and dismounting their horse. They will learn basic maneuvers such as starting and stopping, steering, and walking while under supervision of an Instructor. As participants become more comfortable in the saddle, they will learn intermediate skills such as posting, trotting, and cantering. If participants wish to become Instructors, they can apply for certification through PATH, Intl.
The skills our Veterans bring to SPIRIT are just as diverse as they are. Our participants have held varieties of jobs both in the military and the civilian world, and many possess skills that can help SPIRIT grow and develop as an organization. From public relations, to communications, to engineering, to finance, our Veterans bring their skills to bear to help SPIRIT in the office as well as the pasture. And for those new to Nonprofit Administration who care to learn more, we give them an overview of how SPIRIT from the corporate perspective. From there, we ask volunteers to participate in Community Outreach activities, engaging populations that could be interested in either supporting or participating in the services we provide. This can then expand into Advocacy and Fundraising activities, helping to raise enough funds for operating costs and development projects on Sully Farm. As participants gain a better understanding of the cash flow within a nonprofit, they can help with Program Management functions such as budget tracking, financial projections, and office management. Finally, if participants want to commit even more of their time to SPIRIT, they can eventually become members of our Executive Committee or Board of Directors.