By Britney Grover
StableStrides has been an active force for good in Colorado Springs since 1981. Though it’s had several different names and has developed and expanded its programs over the years, the mission has remained the same: using horses to help people.
Now, StableStrides has multiple locations fueled by more than 20 horses and 200 volunteers. They’ve grown from strictly a therapeutic riding center into a national leader in equine-assisted activities and therapies, including mental health services and hippotherapy. They’re striving not just to improve the lives of individuals in their community, ranging from children with physical adaptive needs to veterans and active-duty service members from nearby military installations, but to promote equine therapy as a whole for its long-lasting benefits.
It began with a simple observation. “StableStrides was originally established as Acts 19:11 by a community member that had horses and neighboring children with disabilities and realized the two went well together,” said Executive Director Shannon Mitchell. “She started it as a backyard organization and as years went on, more people in the community were requesting the services. Our founder, Gay O’Rourke, just kept building on that.”
The program developed into Pikes Peak Therapeutic Riding Center, an adaptive riding facility for individuals with physical needs. Though they still offer therapeutic riding, the name was outgrown when their services expanded. “In 2010, we brought on a new executive director who came from a mental health background and saw a need in our community for more mental health services,” Shannon said. “Since then, our mental health programs have grown from nonexistent to 70 percent of what we do.”
Shannon joined StableStrides as a board member in 2013, and became the executive director four years ago. “I was a commercial banker and found that I just needed more hours with my family,” she shared. “About the same time, the last executive director resigned and it was just a great fit: I’ve got a degree in healthcare management, so it really fit with what I’d gone to school for and I grew up with horses. I’ve been on or around them since probably the day I was born, and though my involvement has always been recreational, I’ve always had a love for them.”
Especially as a mother and horse lover herself, Shannon understands why horses are such a valuable therapy tool. “A horse’s emotions really mirror ours,” she explained. “You’ve probably heard people say the horse knows what you’re thinking, or that they feed off of your energy. It’s all true. The horse can tell what you’re thinking, what you’re feeling, and reflect that same feeling. If you’re feeling a lot of anxiety and you enter the arena, the horse can feel that anxiety and will likely not want to be around you. We allow the horse to make those choices. We then work with the client and give them tools to control those emotions, so that then the horse wants to be around them, will let them groom them, will let them catch them. The goal is for the client to take those tools out into their daily life and use those same tools with their family, with their friends, in school, at work, wherever.”
StableStrides has continued to grow to fill the needs of the Colorado Springs communities, especially helping those increasing independence and addressing suicide among high-risk individuals by providing relationship, coping, communication and learning skills. A large portion of clients are veterans and active-duty personnel from the five military installations in the county, including those returning from deployment.
With so many able to benefit from their services and as southern Colorado’s only Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH) International Premier Accredited Center, StableStrides’ largest challenge is capacity. “We’re in the process of trying to figure out how to expand; we’ve found that the need and want for our services is much greater than what we’re able to financially and physically accommodate,” Shannon shared. “Our biggest need is actually space and facilities to be able to serve more individuals.”
To that end, StableStrides holds two main fundraisers each year: Miracles in Motion, a live auction and barn party held at their main location, and the Red, White and Blue Celebration, a smaller luncheon specifically benefiting the StableStrides military programs. But in addition to expanding their own ability to serve, StableStrides is also seeking to promote equine-assisted therapy as a whole.
“Right now, we have two primary goals,” Shannon said. “The short-term goal is to grow our facilities to be able to accommodate more clients. The big vision is that we’re no longer the last option, that equine therapy as an industry is the first option; that people don’t try everything else and then come to us, they know about us and they come to us first so they don’t have to go through the trial and error of other therapies.”
Ultimately, it’s sharing what participants in StableStrides programs already know: Horses as a therapy tool can impact lives and create long-lasting results. “The majority of our clients come to us and say, ‘I’ve tried everything else; nothing works,’” Shannon said. “They come to us and leave with, ‘I tried everything else; nothing worked — and this did.’”
For more information, visit www.stablestrides.org
Photos by Amy May Images