History of One Heart Equestrian Therapy
One Heart Equestrian Therapy has been improving the lives of central Iowa’s children and adults with disabilities since 2002. One Heart provides a wide variety of therapeutic riding services, from developmental riding classes for children and adults with a variety of physical and intellectual disabilities, to driving classes for those who cannot ride a horse but want the benefits of therapy, to classes with mini horses designed to give individuals who are unable or unwilling to ride therapeutic experiences with animals. One Heart is part of a nationwide movement to provide people with disabilities the opportunity to benefit from interaction with horses, and is a member of PATH, the Professional Association for Therapeutic Horsemanship. One Heart did not, however, magically materialize fully formed and ready to provide these services to the community. One Heart is the product of dreams, hard work, and the support of hundreds of residents of central Iowa and beyond.
In the Beginning: the One Heart Idea
The idea for One Heart began with Kris Lager. Kris is a special needs mom, and a self-identified “horsey person.” One Heart grew out of both of these aspects of Kris’s life. In 1995, she and her husband, Kelly, adopted their second child from Romania, a little girl with special needs. This adoption set the wheels in motion, because it helped Kris to lose her fear of people with disabilities. She commented “I was raised in an era when if you were staring at anybody, even in a cast, or who limped, or had a crutch or a cane, let alone in a wheelchair or had Down Syndrome, Mom just slapped the snot out of you and said don’t stare. So you were raised with a wariness, maybe even a 'fear' of people with disabilities. Being the mother of a special needs child plunged her into a new world, one that familiarized her with the needs of people with disabilities.
This, however, wasn’t enough to set the wheels in motion. Another important factor was Kris’s history as a “horsey person.” She said, “I grew up horsey. Everything was 100% horse.” As a child, she showed horses in 4-H, and in college, she studied animal science. She also earned a master’s degree in physiology, where she again explored her interest in horses. Because of this interest, she was fascinated by the story of her sister-in-law’s father, a man who had survived polio. As an adult, he maintained his mobility through riding Barney, one of his farm horses. It was Barney’s motion and his body’s response to it that kept him moving. This story influenced Kris’s sister-in-law to become a therapeutic riding instructor, and in the summer of 2000, she took Kris to watch a therapeutic riding session in Minneapolis. Kris was astonished to see the therapists put a young man with quadriplegia on the back of a therapy horse. She had seen “every kind of horse and pony imaginable,” but she’d never seen a therapy horse at work before, and it was magic. She remembered, “Rolling in his chair up the ramp and transferring to the back of the horse, everything about him changed. Now, he didn’t walk out of the arena, he didn’t speak, but there was some chemical transformation that you could just see. Everything about him changed when he was riding on the horse.”
When Kris returned home, she mentioned to her boss at the USDA, Dr. Lawayne Nusz, that she thought it “would be neat to look into "the potential of researching the possibility of maybe thinking about having" a therapeutic riding program in our community.” She was not ready to act, but she was thinking. What she didn’t know was that her boss shared that information with a special needs mom in the Ames community. One evening, when Kris was in the grocery store after a long day at work, a mother introduced herself in the store. She said, “I heard you’re starting a therapeutic riding program. I think my son would benefit.” As Kris said, “That was that. When God gives me a sign, it’s a billboard. I mean, it has to be. So that was it.” One Heart was born out of a chance encounter with a mom who wanted something better for her special needs child.
Out of Thin Air: Bringing the pieces together
Kris began researching therapeutic riding programs, and found the North American Riding for the Handicapped Assocation (NARHA), now known as the Professional Association for Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH). She then called the Nevada Journal, to see if she could put an ad in the paper about a meeting to explore the creation of a therapeutic riding program in central Iowa. The paper thought it sounded like news, and published an article about the project. Kris also posted a notice in the faculty/staff area of the veterinary college at Iowa State University. Fifteen people from three counties came to this initial meeting: horse people, special education teachers, a physical therapy assistant, and various friends. This group became the steering committee. What One Heart now needed was a certified, qualified therapeutic riding instructor, a requirement for NARHA membership. Again, connections intervened. A person on the steering committee pointed Kris toward Maureen Howard, a recent transplant to Boone, Iowa. Maureen had been a therapeutic riding instructor at Cedar Creek Therapeutic Riding in Columbia, Missouri, and a meter reader who knew a member of the steering committee saw her in her backyard, wearing a Cedar Creek sweatshirt. Maureen was ready to get back into therapeutic riding, and had even contacted the Boone YMCA camp about the possibility of teaching lessons. When she came to visit Kris, she brought a resume including publications and presentations in therapeutic riding. As Kris said, “she knew everything there was to know.”
Now One Heart needed a place to ride and horses. Story County 4-H was willing to arrange for both at the Story County Fairgrounds. Kris, however, took things one step further, and wrote a letter to all of her friends from the horse show world to see if anyone had a horse to give. She was willing to take retired show horses, brood mares whose foaling days were over, or any other available horse. Kris’s childhood friends from Smithville, Missouri, the Dolans, came through. They gave One Heart its very first horse, a five year old, green-broke Morgan mare, Rosie. Neighbors donated pasture space (affectionately known as “the jungle”) for her, and One Heart’s herd was born. But while One Heart had a horse, it didn’t own a brush or a bridle. As Kris said, “we had nothing.” One Heart’s first community event was a "bridle" shower, or horse tack shower, but fashioned as a bridal shower, complete with invitations, a cake, and little mints. The community came through with everything One Heart needed, from bridles and brushes to fly spray and hoof picks. The community also gave $1500 in cash. Slowly, but surely, other pieces fell into place. The Nevada Kiwanis built a ramp system, allowing people in wheelchairs to roll up and transfer easily to the back of a horse. The Boone Rotary voted to supply One Heart with five riding helmets in each size, something absolutely necessary for the riders’ safety. Cedar Creek in Columbia, Missouri, provided another two usable horses. Other donors provided the fourth and fifth horses, Sonny and Soldier. One Heart had asked, and the community had answered.
Making It Work: One Heart at the Story County Fairgrounds
One Heart put its first rider up in the spring of 2002, at the Story County Fairgrounds. The program began with a newly donated and untested Rosie, as well as Babe, Cherokee, Sonny, and Soldier. The first riders came by way of word of mouth. One Heart has never advertised for riders. If the program advertised, there would be more riders than it could accommodate. The first rider, Kia, is still with One Heart all these years later.
Riding at the fairgrounds was a challenge. While the arena had a roof, it was open on four sides. One Heart rode in rain, sleet, and snow. The only time the program did not ride was when the tornado sirens were sounding. It was a completely mobile operation. Every riding day, either Kris or Kelly trucked the horses in from the pasture near Colo, taking with them all of the paraphernalia necessary for riding. When the lessons were over, everything made the same journey back. It was grueling. At the end of the second session, disaster struck. Cherokee contracted West Nile virus and died. Although he had been vaccinated for West Nile, he became ill anyway, and according to the Nevada Journal, he was one of 14 Story County horses to contract the disease that summer.
It was a rugged beginning, but in spite of this tragedy, a good one. Kris commented in the One Heart newsletter about the experience of that first year. “We met our deadline of having riders on horses in June 2002! Session 1 had 10 clients. Session 2 had 10 clients. Session 3 had 11 clients. We have trained over 60 volunteers this year. . . . Looking forward: look for our services to expand as we acquire more horses. We can offer services to more clients. We are starting to develop a driving program.” The inspiration for the driving program was John, One Heart’s oldest rider, who continued to come consistently to the program into his early 80s. Kris wanted to be prepared for the day when John could no longer ride.
A number of other achievements came while One Heart was at the fairgrounds. In 2003, One Heart was able to send its very first team to compete in the Special Olympics equestrian events. Riders competed in barrel racing, pole bending, ball drop, an egg and spoon race, and a keyhole race. One Heart took home ten gold medals and two silver medals. Eagle Scout and Girl Scout volunteers put together One Heart’s jumping standards and toy closet. In 2007, Peanut, the first mini horse, came to One Heart, so the instructors could add new programs. A mother explained the importance of the mini horses: “Chloe began with caring for and training the “minis” and that, I must say, was probably some of the most fun for me to watch! Chloe had to learn to interact with creatures that could be as stubborn and uncooperative as herself! And she didn’t like it much! However, she learned how her behaviors influenced the miniature horses and from that how better to manage herself.” Possibilities such as these brought an increasing number of clients to One Heart. In the first year, One Heart had 18 riders. In the second year, it had 33. The average number of riders for a therapeutic riding center in North America was thirty, and One Heart was already surpassing that number. As Kris put it, “We were catching on.”
The biggest problem One Heart faced in the fairgrounds years was staffing. Maureen Howard played the essential role of instructor, while Kris organized the business end and managed the horses of the program. Volunteers made it possible for clients to ride each week. The program, however, needed another instructor. That instructor would be Jennifer Lamoreaux, a Girl Scout leader from Story City. Jen was the horse interest leader for the Story City troop and wanted to find a project for the girls. She owned a small horse, Critter, but the Girl Scouts had exhausted his possibilities and wore him out in the process. She volunteered the Girl Scouts to clean the barn – but One Heart didn’t own one. Undeterred, Jen showed up in the spring of 2003, asking to be a volunteer. Maureen began to train Jen. This became a critical project when, in the summer of 2004, Maureen made the decision to train to become a minister. As Kris put it, “If only her call was to be the night clerk at Casey’s, I probably could have talked her out of that, but I didn’t stand a chance against her call.” To maintain their certification with NAHRA, Jen would have to be trained and pass her certification test.
The certification test for a therapeutic riding instructor is a difficult one. Approximately two days of workshops precede the exam. The workshops cover a variety of topics, including safety, mounting and dismounting techniques, assessments, and other important topics. A two-day exam follows the workshop. There are some written tests over basic techniques, but the most important part of the exam is a practicum. The prospective instructor must write goals, objectives, and a lesson plan for two riders, who will be taught at the same time. The lesson plan includes arena set up, and written instructions for the instructor and volunteers, all based on the needs of the riders. If the lesson plan is accepted by the reviewers, the plan must be taught the next day. The prospective instructor has to complete safety checks and fit helmets, demonstrate mounting and dismounting, and teach the lesson, all in 20 minutes. As Kris puts it, the test is “almost impossible.” Following the teaching demonstration, the prospective instructor also has to demonstrate his or her riding technique, in a strange arena, on a strange horse. There was a lot of pressure on Jen; she knew that One Heart would not be riding if she didn’t pass. In March of 2005, Jen successfully completed her examination. Less than a year later, Kris became certified as well.
An additional source of stress came in the form of a health crisis for Kris. As a 15 year old, she had survived Hodgkin’s disease, but her treatment had included massive doses of radiation. The radiation had damaged both her heart and lungs, as well as her bones, and in the summer of 2004, she was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. The fall session of 2004 began with Kris in the hospital in Iowa City, recovering from aortic valve replacement and a double bypass. She would be in and out of the hospital for the next several years, and the volunteers, Jennifer, Kelly, and occasionally Maureen, would fill in. When Kris was in the hospital for her major surgery, her husband suggested that One Heart cancel its session. Kris demurred, saying “If we don’t ride now, we’ll never ride again.” And so they rode.
Building the Herd: A Partnership with the Sons of Norway
To have a therapeutic riding program, One Heart had to have horses. Rosie aside, One Heart began, largely, with horses no one else had use for. They were very old, and often infirm. If the program was to thrive, a stronger, younger herd was necessary. One of the most important parts of herd building was One Heart’s relationship with the Kong Sverre Lodge of the Sons of Norway, in Story City. The grandmother of a One Heart rider was a member of the lodge, and she came to Kris, asking what One Heart needed, and how the Sons of Norway could help. Her reply was that One Heart needed a Norwegian Fjord horse. For the kind of work One Heart does, Norwegian Fjord horses are ideal. They are short and stoutly built, which allows them to carry heavier riders. Additionally, because of their short stature, the volunteers do not have to work over their heads with riders who are potentially heavier than they are. This would be particularly important in providing therapy for older, wheelchair-bound riders. A Norwegian Fjord horse had just been honored as the Therapy Horse of the Year, making this a particularly good moment for this request. In her presentation to the Sons of Norway, Kris emphasized that this was a win-win opportunity for One Heart and an organization dedicated to Norwegian culture and pride. As she told them, “Norwegian Fjord horses have been bred since the time of the Vikings, they’re very strict with their registry. They’re a very distinct breed. So when you have a Norwegian Fjord horse in your pasture, it’s like flying a Norwegian flag in your yard.” It would be an opportunity to display Norwegian pride and support One Heart’s very specific needs.
Following Kris’s presentation and a riding demonstration, the Sons of Norway voted to devote three years of fundraising activities to One Heart. The first year of fund-raising brought in $6000, by way of a benefit held at Story City’s antique carousel. One Heart and the Kong Sverre Lodge put together “A Day at the Races,” held on the first Saturday in May, the traditional day of the Kentucky Derby. They organized a full day of races, from the “Hi, Ho Silver,” a race for local banks and other financial institutions, to the “Old Gray Mayor,” which featured nine of the county’s 14 mayors. The mayor of Story City won the “Old Gray Mayor,” wearing his Viking helmet. There were 10 or 11 races, a post parade, and all of the fanfare of a day of racing. It was a resounding success.
Kris had begun the research to find affordable Fjord horses in advance of the Day at the Races fundraiser, and the first Norwegian Fjord horse came to One Heart by way of a donation. A 24-year-old Fjord horse who had served as a brood mare became available in northern Minnesota. Rosa had been conceived in Norway, but born in Canada, and had been one of the most prolific and important brood mares to help establish the breed in North America. She had eventually found a home in Minnesota, but her owners in Minnesota were now willing to donate her to One Heart. Her owners had no idea if Rosa was broken to ride or drive, since they had only used her as a brood mare. Kris commented, “We put a rider on her. She was fine. She was just a stalwart. She was our first Norwegian Fjord horse.” In the meantime, Kris kept on looking and found two Fjord horse sisters in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Alma and Dagmar had been therapy horses with a program for cancer patients and cancer survivors, but their owner was interested in importing a more exotic breed, one found in the Russian fringes of Tajikistan. Kris received an e-mail with the information, and a listed price of $6000, exactly the amount raised by the Day at the Races. She said, “So I had another billboard. And I picked up the phone, I bought them sight unseen over the phone and internet (no one should ever do this), and they were delivered for free.” A volunteer was headed north to Wisconsin with her horse trailer and picked up Alma and Dagmar on the way home.
The Sons of Norway did two more years of fundraising for One Heart. In the second year, they raised enough to purchase custom-made harnesses for Alma and Dagmar. In the third year, they raised the money for carts, so One Heart could begin its driving program. The broke-to-drive Fjord horses would be able to pull a 4-wheel wagonette with a hydraulic lift tailgate, perfect for a wheelchair. Instead of having a driver’s seat, the wagon had a platform for a wheelchair. Beside this was a seat for an able-bodied whip (assistant). Robbie I Peterson, a Story City craftsman, built one of these carts using the methods of the 1870s. The Sons of Norway had both carts rosemaled by Helga Kennedy, owner of a rosemaling business in Story City. As Kris said, “They’re beautiful. They’re simply works of art.” And so, with the help of the community, One Heart was able to move ahead in new areas of therapy, with much the same goal as riding. The driving program focused on improved balance and trunk control, sequential thinking, following directions, and hand-eye coordination.
A New Home: On to Stagecoach Stables
In the spring of 2007, Kris was in the hospital again, causing a burden for the volunteers to get the program started on week 1. On week 2, the fairgrounds flooded, making it impossible for One Heart to ride. The time had come for a change in location. Kris knew of a stable in Ames that was empty and between managers. Kris had approached the owner previously, but this time it was urgent. She told the owner of Stagecoach Stables that if his facility wasn’t available, then One Heart wouldn’t be riding. They met, and wrote a lease for a dollar a year, with a clause stating that if the stable hired new management, they would honor the riding schedule, which included evenings and weekends. The new location was ideal. As Kris remembered, “We had grass, we had stalling, we had an indoor enclosed arena that was insulated. He paid for the water, he paid for the lights. And we paid him a dollar a year. This was heaven for us.”
The new location brought other new opportunities. In 2008, One Heart held its first day camp for low-vision and blind riders. A year later, One Heart purchased its first lift. This was made possible with a grant from the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation and allowed riders to mount more easily, with greater dignity. One Heart continued to enjoy a positive relationship with volunteers, as an Eagle Scout project brought a “helmet hauler” to the program. The United Way Day of Caring also brought much needed resources. A new instructor, Dani Koski, earned PATH certification. In 2010, One Heart experimented with new activities, sponsoring a field trip for riders at Wild Wood Hills Ranch, and hosting its first Ride and Tie. Ride and Tie is a competition that combines cross country running with riding, to get a team of two people and one horse across a course of at least 20 miles. The first team member starts out on foot, while the second team member rides to the point to which the partner will run, leaving the horse tied there for the runner. The rider then begins to run. The Benefit Ride and Tie for One Heart brought in teams from all over the country. One Heart continued to ride because members of the community were willing to contribute their time and their resources.
New Challenges: Moving One Heart to the Strum Farm
One of the challenges of working in borrowed facilities is that they change management, and sometimes the new management cannot easily meet the needs of the borrower. This is what happened at Stagecoach Stables. One Heart was at Stagecoach Stables from 2007 to 2011, during which time there were two changes of management. Because of the terms of One Heart’s lease with the owner, the managers were bound to honor the therapy program’s use of evenings and weekends, which are prime hours for a riding stable. The other users of the facility had to conform to One Heart’s schedule, while One Heart took prime riding hours when others wanted to ride and give lessons. The management at Stage Coach did its best to honor One Heart’s needs but eventually asked Kris if she could give up Saturdays. This was not going to work. As Kris said, “We had riders from nine counties by this time, and my moms were not going to be able to drive kids from two hours away in the middle of a school night, so we had to have Saturdays. And I said, well, no, it looks like we need to find another home.”
Another home turned out to be the Strum farm, on the south edge of Roland. The Strums had raised a large family, but the children were now on their own, and their riding barn was empty. Kris asked if they would be willing to host One Heart. The answer was yes, and again, One Heart wrote a dollar-a-year lease with a central Iowa family. This riding facility, however, had been built with separate water and electric service, as well as its own propane tank. One Heart assumed these bills, and learned how to manage this side of the business. One Heart also continued to build its herd in its new location. As Kris has commented, “We restructured the herd so they are younger, vibrant, easy keepers, that don’t cost anything to keep. Rebuilding the herd has helped us get some financial stability.”
During the years at the Strum farm, One Heart won a number of awards. In 2011, ARC named Kris its Professional of the Year. In the same year, Jen became PATH’s Region 7 Instructor of the Year. It wasn’t just the people who were winning awards, the horses were, too. In 2013, Rosie became the American Morgan Horse Association Therapy Horse of the Year. Two years later, Shane would win the same honor. They were also able to add carts for the mini horses, increasing their services yet again. One Heart had gone from a struggling, shoestring operation, to an award-winning therapy program with a fine stable of exceptional horses – even if that stable was still a rugged pasture near Colo most of the year.
One Heart continued to connect with the community. Local churches sent vacation Bible school classes to learn about ministering to others while helping clean the barn. The Girl Scouts held a “Snore ‘n Chore,” (camping and horse badge work) and also donated their time to make therapy trees and an activity center. A Boy Scout constructed a sensory trail for One Heart as his Eagle project. More teams went to compete in Special Olympics. In 2014, Special Olympics had to be cancelled because of a disease outbreak, and One Heart created their own competition, complete with a judge and medals. For the first time One Heart hosted an Open Barn and ice cream social using the theme, “Frozen in August”. Inspired by the popularity of the movie, “Frozen”, the Fjord horses of One Heart were a big attraction. One Heart encouraged visitors to dress up as their favorite characters from “Frozen.” As the Story County Sun reported it, “Volunteers decorated several stalls in book and movie themes featuring therapy horses and as the stars.” The volunteers came from Girl Scout Troop 610 of Roland-Story, and the Lutheran Livewires 4-H. All of the horses had a role to play in the Open Barn. Although missing out on Special Olympics was a disappointment, the party was a success and brought more of the community to the barn to meet riders, horses and volunteers.
In the end, the same concerns arose at the Strum farm as at Stagecoach Stables. The family wanted to be able to use the barn for boarding, and people boarding their horses needed and wanted to be able to spend time with them on evenings and weekends. One Heart left the Strum farm, a move that required a semi- truck, four pick-up trucks and three stock trailers, as well as an army of volunteers.
One Heart was faced with a big decision. It was concluded that it was time for One Heart to find a permanent home. To meet the goals for the 15th year of offering services, two shortened sessions of limited classes were arranged with a short-term lease at a facility in Nevada. One specific goal was met with this plan: to qualify the team to compete at the state Special Olympics competition in the fall. After that, One Heart offered limited services in an outdoor arena, all the while continuing the search for a permanent home.
Our Permanent Home
In 2018, One Heart moved into its permanent home, just north of Ames. Thanks to many generous donors, this debt-free facility will serve One Heart well for many years to come. The 10-acre property, with a large indoor arena, allows One Heart to expand into year-round services and to increase the number and scope of individuals served. Check back often to see the progress we are making.