In Luckey, Ohio, Serenity Farm Equestrian Center has been offering equine therapy and learning programs for nearly 20 years, helping those with mobility and neurological issues live healthier, happier lives.
“I think it’s such an opportunity to work alongside so many different families,” said founder Debra DeHoff. “No matter what they’re going through, we’re able to share what we do with them and hope it makes life a little bit better.”
The center is open to individuals of all ages and offers therapeutic riding, occupational therapy and equine-assisted learning for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder; those with autism, behavioral issues, learning delays and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder; and victims of domestic violence. The youngest client to receive services was 2, and the oldest 103.
Working with horses requires the center’s clients to be calm and communicate with the animal, encouraging focus and coping skills.
“It takes patience and partnership with the horse,” DeHoff said.
Building a bond between rider and horse while shutting out the outside world allows clients peace of mind.
“We have a survey, and one of [our client’s] parents said that, when they come here, all the world is left outside the gates, and it’s serenity from heaven,” DeHoff said. “We’re focusing on just this hour and you are the most important person in the world. Sometimes, we put on gentle music, just walk [with the horse] and see where things are.”
Safety is paramount when dealing with interactions between clients and horses, and the center uses the Parelli Natural Horsemanship method to train their horses to be calm and responsive. Because the horses are exposed to diverse stimuli and are in many different environments, it is important that the horses themselves and the instructors are trained to understand and communicate with one another.
“Horses are prey animals and we are predators by nature, so learning to interact takes skills,” DeHoff said. “[The horses] are trained to take on a lot of things.”
The Parelli Foundation also has supported the center through grants, assisting in training volunteers and staff and donating gently used equipment.
“That’s how much they believe in us,” DeHoff said. “There are several Parelli Professionals here in Ohio who come and help us out.”
Serenity Farm also hosts “Team Thunder,” a team of mini horses which center volunteers take to local nursing homes, hospices and Ronald McDonald Houses. The horses operate much like therapy dogs or cats in these situations, and they are trained in the Parelli method and have up-to-date veterinary records on file.
“We had a lady who was doing rehab, and she saw one of the minis climbing stairs,” DeHoff said. “She said, ‘If he can do it, I can do it.’”
The mini horses are trained to be calm in the face of everything from hospital equipment to fire alarms. Many times, they are called upon to interact with dementia patients.
“We often have [patients] come out of their rooms when they know we’re coming,” DeHoff said. “We go and generate energy – you would be surprised at how many memories come to the forefront. They owned a horse, or their daughter wanted one or their neighbor had one. They’re talking to each other, engaged, socializing, smiling, laughing, out of their rooms. Almost everyone wants to pet them.”
Some assisted living patients even “walk” the minis when they’re mobile and their caretakers are present to monitor them.
“The oldest veteran we’ve worked with – he was 100 years old and very sharp, I wouldn’t have guessed his age – he got up and walked with them. The minis can work with the veterans in a multitude of locations, and, when they aren’t working with the minis, they can take part in therapeutic riding, occupational therapy or equine-assisted learning.”
Veterans, including several who served in Vietnam, also lend a helping hand at the center by volunteering.
“They are a real treat – wonderful – and they are dedicated to service,” DeHoff said.
It was the center’s commitment to helping veterans that attracted the attention of the HomeServe Cares Foundation, which made a monetary donation to the center through its Caring for Veterans program. The center depends on fundraisers and grant programs to keep the barn doors open and enjoys a great deal of support from the local community.
“On your [IRS form] 990, you should be able to show 33.3 percent [financial] general community support and ours sits at 78 percent,” DeHoff said. “We’re very proud of that. It requires a strong sense of integrity and listening to feedback. We strive and work for that and don’t take it for granted.”
DeHoff was especially grateful for the support because opening the center was a reinvention of herself after moving from Philadelphia to rural Ohio. With a background in social work and a professional career as a horsewoman behind her, it seemed like a natural fit – so much so that she had been frequently encouraged to go into equine therapy. However, she took it slowly.
“People were saying, ‘Would you consider this?’ and I had no idea, I didn’t know anything about it. But it kept crossing my path, so I checked into it.”
She spent a year researching equine therapy, visiting other facilities offering it and learning what licenses it would require.
“I wanted to do it by the letter,” she said. “I wanted to follow best practices, not have a backyard-type situation.” Now nationally recognized for best practices in equine-assisted therapies, Serenity enjoys a solid reputation and has mentored others in the process in the U.S., Africa, Germany and the Netherlands with professionals traveling to the little farm in Luckey, Ohio.
In addition to their current work, the center plans to open therapeutic riding to children of veterans and active duty military. About their work, DeHoff noted that therapeutic riding allows individual interaction.
“It is better one on one, because you have a personal connection,” she said.
Serenity Farm will be taking part in Giving Tuesday on Dec. 3. Consider Serenity as your charity choice and help them to help others. www.serenityfarm.org