“There two kinds of people here: there are horse-people and non-horse people,” Joy O’Neal said of her staff, sitting at a table in the quaint little ranch home that serves as command central for the people — horse and non-horse alike — who work hard to make the Red Barn Foundation what it has grown to be: a destination for children in need to delve into age-old methods of equine-assisted therapy.
O’Neal is the executive director for the Red Barn Foundation. Her staff consists of people who come from all types of backgrounds; some of them specialize in speech pathology, while others are grade-A certified riders — which is what O’Neal means by horse-people and non-horse people. Together they work as a unit — along with the horses, of course — to serve a wide range of people. Some of the children who visit may have special needs or may be emotionally distressed. They also help to serve veterans and their families.
“On an emotional level, because they live in herds the same way that people live in families, horses provide a lot of opportunity for metaphors just with the way they look after one another. They’re very relationship-dependent,” O’Neal explained. “For a lot of the children that we see, their relationships haven’t always been great. So the horses help them to learn more about how to be in a good relationship. A horse is always very honest. It gives you an honest response.”
Adjacent to the ranch-style home is the big red barn, which is nestled up against the bank of the Little Cahaba River just upstream from Lake Purdy. As Sept. 8 marked the first day of the fall season for the foundation, joyful laughs and the pitter-patter of excited feet could be heard coming from the barn.
O’Neal has a special way about her. She’s the kind of person who seems, even at first glance, to be living life purposefully, using her passion to reach out to others who may not know where else to look for help. By listening to her describe the horses, it’s easy to believe that she can actually speak to them when nobody is listening.
Along with children who may require some emotional guidance from the creatures who call the red barn home, the horses also provide a form a physical therapy for those in need — equine-assisted therapy, as it is more broadly known.
“The bilateral repetitive motion of the horse helps to develop neuron connections in the brain and helps to strengthen muscles. It works on gross motor skills, fine motor skills and core strength. It’s kind of like the whole wax-on, wax-off way of thinking like in The Karate Kid,” O’Neal said, still seated comfortably at the table.
Some of the exercises include a “sensory trail,” which has rings that riders must move from one post to the next, chimes that riders reach out and touch and all sorts of other movements, big and small. “Even putting on the saddle helps the kids. A lot of them who suffer more serious disabilities have trouble buckling their belts, and that movement, strapping on a saddle, helps build their confidence,” O’Neal said.
O’Neal was careful to point out that this is not some new form of therapy dreamt up by neo-hippies living out in the woods. Equine-assisted therapy is something that has been around since the ancient Greeks.
Tiffany Rouse, executive director for the Red Barn Foundation, knows firsthand how the evolution of the working relationship between man and horse has helped to change lives and inspire hope.
“No one really uses horses as a tool anymore,” Rouse said (besides the Amish, she later noted). “They’ve progressed from being less of a tool to more of a pet. But I think both of those roles are important in a completely different ways. What would the world look like? Without using them as a tool, society would look completely different.
“An animal that is that large and has more power and more speed than you could ever have, but to be able to communicate with this creature, non-verbally, is something that just teaches you so much,” Rouse said about the ways in which horses have not only been used by humans, but have taught people empathy and cooperation — valuable lessons that are instilled in the children who visit the barn every day.
There are 11 horses who call the red barn home. Well, for accuracy’s sake, they live in the big white barn just down the gravel road. They use the red barn for exercises and lessons. “It’s more comfortable for them there,” Alexis Braswell, O’Neal’s daughter, explained as she walked down the road to the white barn.
When the Red Barn Foundation began officially in 2012, they could fit all five of their horses into the red barn. But as their nonprofit began to attract more people seeking their special brand of equine-assisted therapy, they needed to upgrade the accommodations. Fortunately, a neighbor — “Deb,” as Braswell refers to her — opened up her barn doors to help keep some of the horses.
Without a doubt, Braswell’s favorite horse is the one she calls Pepper. “I’ve had him since I was in the third grade,” Braswell, now 25, said. “So yeah, we go way back.”
When Braswell arrives at the white barn — “We get real creative when we name things around here,” she quipped — children are inside, brushing one of the horses named Flame, a 20-year-old Arabian gelding whom O’Neal describes as the “quintessential gentleman.”
An important aspect of what the Red Barn Foundation does is to adopt and repurpose rescue horses to be used as therapy animals. “The same way hospitals use dogs to help the patients,” O’Neal explained.
“We have one horse, whose name is George, he was actually at a slaughterhouse and someone saw him and said, ‘He doesn’t need to be here.’ So they bought him from the sale where the horses were going to slaughter. Nobody was buying him, and the woman who bought him and eventually donated him to us just said, ‘There was something in his eyes, they were too soft,’” O’Neal recalled, adding that she is always open to accepting more horses, especially ones like lucky old George.
“We have people that come up to us, though, saying, ‘I’m trying to get rid of this horse, he broke my leg again.’ We can’t have horses like that — they have to be gentle and good with kids,” O’Neal added.
Besides being the start of a new season at the Red Barn Foundation, Sept. 8 marks another milestone for the nonprofit down by the Little Cahaba River in Leeds.
The JAYC Foundation, which stands for Just Ask Yourself to Care, was started after Jaycee Dugard was kidnapped and held captive for 18 years before being found and rescued. The JAYC Foundation awarded the Red Barn with a grant and to serve as the pilot program for their new equine-assisted therapy curriculum.
“I happened to see a clip on YouTube about how horses had helped Jaycee. So I did a little research and contacted the foundation and met with them back in March. They came out here in June and held a training course for us on how to implement their curriculum,” O’Neal said.
“One of the things I admire most about her is that she doesn’t want to be remembered as the girl who lived in somebody’s backyard for 18 years. She wants to be remembered as someone who made the world a better place. That experience doesn’t define her legacy,” O’Neal continued.
This is the core of what the Red Barn Foundation hopes to do: make a lasting impression on those who have emotional, mental or physical disabilities. To the children who come to the barn, O’Neal and her team of volunteers may as well be knights in shining armor.
For those people, like Dugard or veterans or anyone suffering from distress, the ancient act of riding and taking care of these creatures has proven to be not only beneficial, but life-altering. Just ask O’Neal. She describes beautifully the rhythms of riding and how it matches those of the heart. “There’s just nothing like it,” she said.
“For those kids who suffer from autism and you see maybe rocking back and forth, that rhythm, that movement, can have a tremendous calming influence on them,” according to O’Neal.
There is a long list of programs that the Red Barn provides. As Rouse explained, the riding lessons are by far the most popular. “Right now we have a waiting list of 72 people who want to get into this program,” she said, adding that those people will have dibs on the next round of lessons that are offered.
By simply looking at how equine-assisted therapy helped Jaycee Dugard free herself from the weight of her captivity, or by watching as children who have trouble walking climb onto the back of a horse and feel the wind blow in their smiling faces, it’s clear that O’Neal and her team are striving to create a habitat of rehabilitation and love.
O’Neal does not recall the exact moment she knew that this was to be her mission in life, but she will never forget who was directly responsible for inspiring her.
“Many years ago, I had a mentor named Anita Cowart. All of my own children rode horses, so that’s how I met her. Her daughter was killed in a car accident. She was devastated by that loss, so she remembered a Bible verse that said, ‘Whatever is given up in God’s glory will be returned a hundredfold.’ But Anita wanted it to be a thousandfold. So she began to pray for 1,000 more daughters. Her family had horses and she taught riding lessons, so one generation after another generation of girls came out,” O’Neal said.
“Her daughter died in the late ‘60s and I didn’t meet her until the 2000s, so for 40 years it was generations of girls who would come and hang out with her, and she always had this dream of using horses to help people. We wanted to carry on that legacy and continue doing that,” O’Neal said.
The vision that she hopes will live on through the doors of the red barn is a dream that she remembered Cowart describing to her. “She always had this vision of the horses that they could be used to heal children with disabilities,” O’Neal said. “She dreamed that the barn would act like a carwash, where kids on crutches and limping and full of despair, they would go through the barn and come out on the other side just dancing and singing.”
And so it goes. As O’Neal looked on, one kid after another came prancing happily out of the barn as if nothing in their lives had ever gone wrong.