Shannon Smith

By Kathleen Seaman

Healing through horsemanship

Anyone familiar with the world of nonprofits knows its staff members tend to wear a lot of hats. This is definitely the case for Shannon Smith, the program director at Reach Therapeutic Riding Center. Reach offers equine-assisted therapies for children and adults with physical, mental and emotional special needs from muscular dystrophy to autism to depression.

Thanks to her cowboy father, Smith was raised around horses and competitively rode hunter/jumper and cutting horses until she took a break to raise a family. But once her youngest child was in a Mother’s Day Out program, she decided to return to her childhood passion.

“There are probably easier volunteer gigs that are not as dirty and hot,” Smith said. “I was horse leading, cleaning out stalls, cleaning tack, schooling the horses. You name it, we do it. We’re out in the rain, we’re out in the cold, we’re out in the heat, but it’s just so worth it.”

What started as a volunteer gig turned into a staff position when Smith became the volunteer director in 2015. Since 2018, she’s served as the the program director. She manages Reach’s program schedule, oversees the staff and volunteers, and spends her days doing a little bit of everything from making sure the bills get paid to helping lunge horses. Smith recently spoke with the Wacoan about where she learned her work ethic, what kind of horse makes a good candidate for equine therapy and how a gentle giant can help a child build confidence.

WACOAN: Did you grow up around horses?

Smith: I’m an equestrian by training. I’ve been riding horses since I could walk. We had ranch horses when I was little, and I think my dad recognized fairly quickly that, like him, I had some natural talent.

I started riding hunter/jumpers, and I did that until I was 17 or 18. He hauled me all over creation for hunter/jumper [competitions]. Then he invited me to join him riding cutting horses, and he and I did that until he died. He died when I was 26.

My dad was [6-foot-6]. He was a legit cowboy. I got dropped off as a kid at the ranch, which was across the street from my dad’s sand and gravel business. It’d be 6:45 in the morning, and I’d have a lunch and one of those Igloo coolers.

I’d have a list of stuff to do, like mow the pasture, mow the front entryway, clean all the stalls, exercise the horses, plow the arena. [He said,] ‘I’ll drive back by at 5 o’clock, and if these things aren’t done, I don’t stop.’ Would he have not stopped? I don’t know, because it was always done.

I learned how to work at a really young age. That work ethic was ingrained in me early by him. But with that came reward. I had a boat at the country club. I had a horse. I got to go to horse shows. But if I didn’t work, those things were not available to me. I think it was definitely a balance that he provided. He was a cool guy.

I’ve always had a love of horses, and I’ve always had a desire to help people. I think it’s innately ingrained in me to be at the service of others. I firmly believe, and I live by the theory of, we’re all here to be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, to stand in the gap. Being at Reach marries that for me. It’s helping people and includes horses.

WACOAN: How did you end up working for Reach?

Smith: One of the original founders of Reach, Candace Harrison, I saw her. She was telling me about Reach. It was really pretty new, and she was asking me to come out and get involved. That was not a good time for me, but about a year later, I thought, ‘I really need to do something.’ Both of the boys were in Mother’s Day Out, so I called her, and I went out to Reach for the first time in late 2011. I volunteered out there two days a week for several years.

If you haven’t seen [the center], I can’t explain it. I hear from the volunteers, more than not, that coming to Reach is therapy for them too. It’s their place. I don’t know if you’ve ever been out there, but it’s spectacular.

You drive through the gate, and for as far as you can see, it’s just green grass and big, huge trees and beautiful pastures. This peace washes over you just driving through the gate. When you’re there, you know you’re going to do something really cool, because what we do is we change lives. And that’s the goal. If just one person leaves there better than they came, then I consider that a successful day.

WACOAN: When did you become part of the staff?

Smith: In 2015. I had a little more time now that both of the boys were in school. It just so happened that at that time the volunteer director position became available. I threw my name in the hat. Then in 2018, I became the program director. I’ve been here a long time.

WACOAN: Can you tell me about the programs Reach offers?

Smith: We’re a nonprofit, and we do equine-assisted activities for children and adults with special needs. We also have a veterans program that has really grown, even despite COVID.

During our day program, which are the kids and adults with special needs, it varies. It’s anything from severe nonverbal autism. Just the last two semesters, we’ve seen an influx of high anxiety, depression. I think a lot of that’s [due to] COVID.

We have on the schedule Down syndrome, traumatic brain injury, stroke. We cover the gamut during our day program, which is the program that I run.

Our veteran programs, Horses for Warriors, Kelly Bays is our director for that program. We have a group out of Fort Hood that comes once a month. They’re transitioning out of the military and into civilian life.

Then every Monday night, we have groups that come out to Reach. We partner with Aramark at Baylor, and they provide a meal for any serviceman or woman, and it’s totally free to the veteran. They come out, they have dinner, they fellowship.

We’ve been working with two [residential programs] at the local [Doris Miller Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center] pre-pandemic. These residential programs are not mandatory. [The veterans are] there because they want to be better, and our program helps facilitate that. We see a lot of [post-traumatic stress disorder].

Anyone who would like to come that is active military or a veteran, they’re more than welcome. We’ve seen some really amazing things. I get emotional about it, but you see them come in, and they’re super anxious and nervous and withdrawn. Our hope is that when they leave, they’re better than they came. A lot of times, you can just see them relax. It’s a really cool thing to watch.

WACOAN: How long was the center closed because of the pandemic?

Smith: We were closed for six months. I sent a poll to the parents in May. I think I had four that said they would still come, but I can’t open for four people. So, we just kind of waited.

A lot of these kids and adults are immunocompromised. If I’m the parent of that kid and my kid requires therapies, this might not be the one I’m gonna chance it with. Obviously, it’s incredibly helpful, and the kids love it, but some other therapies take precedent.

We’re governed by an entity called Path, which stands for professional association of therapeutic horsemanship. We waited it out, and we followed a lot of what Path was recommending that we do. We’re very, very fortunate that we have super low overhead, and we’re allowed to use our facility free of charge.

Gary and Diane Heavin donate the facility and the property to us, and they have for the last like 12 years. If we didn’t have that, I’m not sure what we would have done. We went into the pandemic pretty financially healthy for a nonprofit, but I could see how some did not recover. We haven’t had a fundraiser in over a year, and for a nonprofit, that’s very, very difficult.

WACOAN: What is your typical fundraiser?

Smith: We do a big party at the barn. It’s gotten bigger and bigger as the years have gone on. It’s super fun. We do a silent auction. Then we do a really cool horse auction. We dress the horses up, braid their hair and cover them in glitter. Then we bring them through the covered arena, and we auction off their care for a year. That brings in quite a bit of money for us during the fundraiser.

WACOAN: You mentioned the veteran program was free, but what about the therapeutic day programs?

Smith: For therapeutic riding, it’s $50 a lesson, but we do offer and provide scholarships for those who qualify. It’s based on a sliding scale. We never want our services to be a financial burden on families.

WACOAN: What does your day-to-day look like?

Smith: I open every morning because that’s the easiest for me so I’m still available to do the things I need to do with the kids. I’m usually there by 7:30. I open the barn every morning, and we kind of get the day started. We get started by feeding the horses, lunging the horses, grooming the horses, getting all the tack pulled for the day.

The rest of the day, I communicate with our bookkeeper, making sure that all of the invoices are getting emailed to the parents. I pay all the bills, make all the bank deposits. I’m in charge of the schedule, so if somebody calls, and they’ve got an 8-year-old autistic daughter, and they’d like to get her into the program, then I field that phone call and manage the registration, setup and evaluation.

I manage the staff, manage the volunteers. (We lost our volunteer coordinator during COVID, so now I’m doing both jobs.) So talking to the staff and making sure all the lessons get covered and making sure the instructors are ready to go for the day. They’ve done their lesson planning. I just make sure that the day runs. I run the program. Whatever needs to be done, I do.

I get a lot of emails about people wanting to give us their horses, so I have to field all of those because some people don’t realize that the horse that they’ve had in their pasture for 10 years might not be the best candidate for us. But you never know, so we go through a long process with that.

WACOAN: What makes a horse a good candidate?

Smith: In theory, we would really like to have an older horse. Later teens, early 20s. Not a 30-year-old horse. But they have to be what I consider bomb-proof. They can be alert, not reactive.

They go through a 30- to 90-day trial period. We put them through the wringer. We blow bubbles. We throw balls. Sometimes each other, a volunteer [on the horse] to be super unbalanced or cry. Velcro sometimes is a deal breaker, surprisingly enough. Rattles, because it mimics another noise that is a flight instinct for them, a snake or rattlesnake. But we’re looking for the horses that are natural pleasers and that really can tolerate a lot of different situations.

These horses are fed by a group of people, groomed by another group of people, lunged by another group of people, saddled by three or four different people during the day. They get a lot of senses that they’re not used to, so that can totally blow their mind.

Industry-wide, finding horses and maintaining and keeping horses in the therapeutic riding world is always an ongoing issue because they burn out. They get tired of all of the different things that they go through during the day. Not every horse is designed for that.

We’re very, very particular about the horses. Maybe one out of every 10 we bring in the program we keep. That’s a lot of time spent on horses that we don’t keep, but at the end of the day, if I would not put my children on this horse, I’m not going to put somebody else’s.

I’ve been wrong. We brought in a 7-year-old horse when I was the volunteer director that I thought was a really bad idea. Seven I thought was too young. Now, his name is Grumpy Grandpa. I mean, he’s just not a normal 7-year-old, you know?

Then Reach has only ever purchased one horse in the history of the program. We purchased in 2015 a Percheron, which is a giant draft horse. He came in Parelli-trained, and he is just a gentle giant. He is an 1,800-pound Labrador retriever puppy. He is hilarious. He’s so fun.

WACOAN: How many horses do you have right now?

Smith: We have seven. The most we’ve had is nine.

WACOAN: Is there a certain horse over the years that you’ve had a special bond with?

Smith: Oh, yes. There was a pony in the barn. She actually was there when the program started, and she belonged to Larry Barnett, who was the founder of Reach, and he gave her to Reach. Her name was Kiddy. She was a little leopard Appaloosa POA, Pony of America, and she was a mare like no other mare. She was exceptional. She was there nine years, and then she retired. I mentioned Candace Harrison earlier, she went to live with Candace. She died two summers ago, and it just crushed me.

We had a little girl that rode Kiddy. This little girl had never spoken a word. She never said anything. She was 4 or 5. When they’re riding, they’re always prompted to say, ‘Go’ or ‘Walk on.’ ‘Walk on’ is the word that these horses are trained with, verbal commands, but it’s whatever is easiest for the participant to say. Kiddy was always prompted with a ‘go’ or ‘walk on.’ I was leading the lesson, and the therapist prompted the little girl to say go, and she said, ‘Go.’

The first word she had ever said was on the back of this horse. I finished the lesson, and I just had to go lock myself in my office because I could not stop crying. I didn’t want her mom to see me that way. That doesn’t happen every day, but it totally happens.

WACOAN: Why do you think equine-assisted therapy is so beneficial?

Smith: There are several things that play into that. One of the major reasons is that it’s a total change of scenery. This is not a clinic. You’re not sitting in a waiting room. You’re out in the fresh air. You’re out in the environment.

A lot of why this works is the human-horse connection. The horses have this innate ability to recognize your need. If you come in super anxious, super tense, frightened, depressed, sad, whatever the case, they feel it and they take it.

I’ll tell somebody who’s super anxious and nervous with a horse to just breathe with the horse. Watch how he or she breathes, and just breathe with the horse. You will see them both, the human and the horse, completely relax once their breathing is synchronized. It’s the most amazing thing you’ve ever seen. You’ll see that horse drop his head, his ears will fall and then you’ll see that person’s shoulders relax and their body gets loose. It’s almost like you can see it drain from them. There’s this connection between the participant and the horse that just changes things.

When we’re doing hippotherapy, which is facilitated by a licensed therapist — a physical therapist, an occupational therapist or a speech [language pathologist] — it’s a little bit different. [The therapists] are the ones that are in charge of the lesson. We’re just there to provide the horse and the facility and the support. Those participants receive an actual PT, OT, speech session. But the other kids in the therapeutic riding program, their benefits are a little bit different.

They’re learning horsemanship. They’re learning how to be confident. Now they’re able to lead through the barn an 1,800-pound horse who is listening to what they’re saying. That’s a huge confidence booster for a kid who has been otherwise mistreated, maybe in a school setting or a bad home environment. You can see them think like, ‘Oh, my gosh. He just listened to what I said.’

We do ground activities where the participant is tasked with moving the horse through some kind of course, over the poles, over the cavalettis, not saying anything, just connecting with that horse so that horse will follow them through all the different obstacles. Not even with a lead rope or a halter. Just the participant and a horse, and it’s totally nonverbal, and you have to connect with this horse. For these kids, even the adults and the veterans, it’s a huge confidence booster that they’ve been able to accomplish this in a relatively short period of time. I think there are so many benefits. It’s hard to put your finger down on one.

Shannon’s 5 Must-Have Items:

1. Mac lip gloss. I probably have 15 in my purse right now. I like all colors. I really like shimmery nudes and pinks.
2. Wine. A good cab. J. Lohr is my favorite.
3. Music. I grew up on ’80s country, but if you go through my playlist, you’ll see a little Snoop Dogg, Metallica, Fleetwood Mac. You’ll find a little Lionel Richie. Right now, I’m on a Neil Diamond kick. My husband’s a guitarist, so he plays a lot of Rush, AC/DC, rock, but I like all the music. I can’t imagine [not listening to music]. I grew up on eight tracks of the Oak Ridge Boys, Alabama, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash.
4. Comfy pants. They just have to be soft. I don’t even care what color they are. Elastic waist. I want to be comfy. My husband’s a lucky guy; it’s super sexy.
5. Hot baths. I work outside. I have a really physical job. When I get home from work, I want to take a hot bath and decompress. A lot of times the music, the cab and the hot bath are done simultaneously.

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