By Britney Grover
Some hope to find a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. For others, it would be far more valuable to find a horse. Even just a few minutes with a horse can do wonders for someone emotionally, mentally and even physically — especially if that person or child doesn’t have the benefit of a typical body, mind, family situation or they have another difficulty. That’s why Sarah Phelps, a lawyer doing pro-bono work in the Washington D.C. Family Courts, began offering riding to a few foster children: In 1998, Great and Small was born.
“What began with one horse and a handful of foster children quickly grew into a full-scale therapeutic riding program serving children and adults with a variety of needs,” said Center Director Rachel Neff. “Great and Small originally operated out of a public boarding stable, but grew to the point that a separate facility was required. In 2004, Great and Small found a permanent home at the Rickman Farm Horse Park, a property owned by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.”
From their facility in Boyds, Maryland, Great and Small now offers a wide range of equine-assisted activities including therapeutic riding, unmounted lessons, summer camps, visits to senior centers and programs for visiting groups. Partnering with medical professionals allows Great and Small to help even more, such as in hippotherapy with occupational therapists and speech-language pathologists or equine-facilitated psychotherapy with counselors and social workers. Last fall, Great and Small served 55 weekly participants with even more joining for one-time group horse experiences — a far cry from its humble beginnings over 20 years ago.
Rachel joined Great and Small as the farm manager in 2010. “I was horse-crazy from the time I could talk, and I started taking weekly riding lessons at 8 years old,” she said. “I took lessons all the way through school, mostly riding hunter/equitation-type horses. Once I got a driver’s license, I started volunteering at a therapeutic riding center. I started out mucking stalls, then helped with leading and sidewalking in lessons, and eventually did a little paid work in the barn as well.”
Rachel went to college at Murray State University in Murray, Kentucky, where she rode on the IHSA hunt-seat team and was co-captain her senior year — Stella, an off-the-track Thoroughbred who was Murray State’s mascot, is now retired and owned by Rachel. During the summers, she learned the ins and outs of managing therapy horses at another therapeutic riding center in Texas. “After graduation, I was hired to be the farm manager at Great and Small, and a few years later my role transitioned to Center Director, as it is today.”
In her position with Great and Small, Rachel has seen hundreds of individuals benefit from the program, especially children. “My children are in better physical shape because they ride at Great and Small,” one parent shared. “I’ve noticed that my daughter sits unsupported for much longer periods of time now that she is participating in therapeutic riding. My son, who also participates, has much more confidence around all kinds of animals.”
“Noah is very proud of his ability to ride horses and likes to talk to others about his horseback riding,” another parent shared. “We love that he has something that he feels like is his own. Horseback riding has helped him to improve his confidence and his posture, and has helped him to feel special.”
“Jenna has been riding at Great and Small for three years and the feedback from her occupational therapist has been very positive for the strengthening of her core muscles,” yet another relayed. “In addition, the experience of riding at two of Great and Small’s horse shows has added tremendously to Jenna’s confidence.”
The annual Spring Horse Show gives participants the unique opportunity to show what they’ve learned over the course of the year, and is open to the public. Great and Small also hosts two other major fundraising events. “The Mystery Trail Ride is a fun day for teams of two to five riders to solve a mystery by collecting clues spread across 200 acres of Potomac Hunt territory,” Rachel explained. “This event is a fundraiser and a great opportunity to engage people in our regional horse community.”
Great and Small’s largest fundraising event is Horses on Pointe, a biennial event that will be held again October 19, 2019, with ticket sales, corporate sponsorships and donations all benefiting the program. “Horses on Pointe is an evening of drinks, desserts and dancing horses,” Rachel said. “Guests enjoy dressage musical freestyles and other riding performances set to music, interspersed with stories about Great and Small. The highlight of the night is a quadrille performance by Great and Small riders.”
Great and Small’s major goal is to become a center of excellence in the mid-Atlantic region. “That overarching goal encompasses increasing the number of participants we serve, training our staff to the highest level to enable them to best meet the needs of our participants, and raising the funds necessary to provide top-notch care to our equine team members and make improvements to our facility,” Rachel shared.
The first improvement project is to repair the base of the indoor arena and replace the footing, a $12,000 cost. After the footing is replaced, they will assume a multi-year project to replace aging fencing on the property, totaling around $75,000. “We are also constantly recruiting new volunteers to help with our programs,” Rachel said. “Each participant needs the support of up to three volunteers, without whom none of this would be possible. Volunteers are always welcome, at all levels of horse experience.”
Those volunteers are what help to make Great and Small so successful. “The culture of Great and Small is what makes it so special,” Rachel summarized. “Everyone volunteers, from staff to board members, and is focused on doing the absolute best for the participants while also being deeply honoring the incredible horses that partner with us to make our mission possible.”
For more information, visit greatandsmallride.org
Photos by Margot Pettijohn