Riding horses can be a truly transformative experience. There’s something about these wise animals, that allows you to connect and feel safe almost immediately.So it’s no surprise that horses also have therapeutic abilities, and are capable of igniting change in the lives of people with disabilities. For this reason we chose to highlight a very special nonprofit called Whispering Manes Therapeutic Riding Center to honor World Autism Awareness Day, celebrated every year on April 2nd.
Whispering Manes is a therapeutic horseback riding center located in Kendall, Florida, that offers therapeutic horseback riding and horsemanship to people with cognitive, physical and/or sensory disabilities. It was founded by Miami philanthropist Nancy Hector, a champion of children’s causes. Mrs. Hector recognized the need for a place where individuals with disabilities could interact with horses in a therapeutic program.
And so, this wonderful center was opened in 2012, with the mission to benefit children and adults with special needs or disabilities by offering them the opportunity to interact with dedicated horses, in a manner that promotes physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.
Whispering Manes’ volunteers help with everything from barn chores and horse care, to assistance as coaches and horse handlers in therapeutic classes. There are also special events such as horse shows, that volunteers can help with.
Robin Bramson, Whispering Manes’ Program Director, shared with Vee stories about the farm’s activity. “We work with individuals with many different disabilities”, says Bramson, “but working with individuals who are non-verbal or have not developed communication skills is especially impactful. One of the first participants in our program was a young girl diagnosed with apraxia, difficulties developing the skills to speak. She attended sessions with her speech therapist and practiced saying simple words like ‘Spirit’ (the horse she rode) and ‘Walk-On’ (the command to ask Spirit to walk). After several years of working with the horses once or twice a week, her mom shared that the first sentence she’d ever heard her daughter say was ‘I rode a horse today’.”
“One of our first volunteers was a veteran”, Robin shares, “and he has continued to volunteer for our 10 year history. He actually participated in our first session on January 23, which was part of the veterans’ program. A disabled veteran himself, he’d always loved horses but never had the opportunity to be around horses. After the first session he asked if he could come more often than the scheduled veterans’ sessions. We were thrilled to have his interest so he joined our volunteer team. Over the years he has learned a lot about horses, and he has become one of our most dedicated volunteers, helping 2-3 mornings every week.”
Whispering Manes serves up to 80 participants per week, ranging in age from 5 to over 70 years old. Annually, there are over 150 people enrolled in its equine-assisted activity programs, including current and former members of the armed services, participants from local special education schools, and other private individuals.
Over the years more programs were added, including the ‘Manes and Tales Equine-Assisted Literacy Program’, ‘Mini Manes’ visiting program, and the ‘Just Say WHOA to Bullying’ anti-bullying program.
The farm is looking for ways to expand its programming over the next few years. “We have plans to build out other areas of our property to help us introduce new programs such as interactive vaulting and therapeutic driving. We have a goal to grow the program by about 25% and reach at least 100 participants per week”, says Bramson.
But finding volunteers to help make this vision a reality is hard. “There are so many worthy causes in South Florida and we are always working to stand out among the crowd. Our program is very dependent on volunteers as horses need care 365 days of the year”, Robin shares.
“During our busiest year (pre-pandemic) we had 140 volunteers. It’s been a challenge to get back to that level now that COVID restrictions have relaxed. We have a lot of interest from high school students who are looking for community-service hours, and that really helps fill our after school hours. But we start programs at 10:00 AM every morning and we cannot deliver those programs without the assistance of volunteers. Adult volunteers to fill the morning hours are difficult to find.”
So take a look at Whispering Manes' great volunteer activities. There's no doubt that spending time with wonderful horses can give so much to everyone, volunteers and participants alike!