Stallion Showcase: Healing Through Horses: TR 4 Heart & Soul fills a special need in North Dakota
TR 4 Heart & Soul, a non-profit therapeutic riding center, operates on a 40-acre property that Katie Oakland and her husband, Brock, bought outside of Bismarck, North Dakota seven years ago. Katie had dreamed of operating a riding center since she was a junior in high school. She volunteered at a hippotherapy center in Grand Forks, an afternoon that she says changed her life.
“I thought it was amazing what the horses did for people that have special needs,” Katie says. After that day, she talked about starting her own program through college, marriage and beyond, until eventually settling in Bismarck. “One day out of the blue my husband said, ‘If you really want to do this, I think it’s something we should look into.’”
The next day they started training, getting certifications and getting their place in order. The Oaklands decided to call the venture TR 4 Heart & Soul, “TR” standing for therapeutic riding, and “Heart and Soul” referring to everything given by the volunteers, horses and participants.
“Everybody tried so hard, there was no better way to describe it,” Katie says. “And everybody really leaves their heart and soul out there in the arena.”
Today, TR4HAS has both an outdoor and indoor riding arena, necessary for a program that operates through the winter, and sees around 50 participants each week with lessons all day Tuesdays, Thursdays and Friday mornings. For each participant, there have to be three volunteers during the lesson to make sure it is safe and that the participant can meet his or her goals, whether they are related to physical therapy, mental health or otherwise.
“When we first started, the people that called us had a lot of physical disabilities like stroke, traumatic brain injury, cerebral palsy,” Katie says. “The horse does such a phenomenal job because the movement of the horse is very therapeutic to a human, they provide a 3-dimensional repetitive movement. We’ve had as many as four or five participants in the few years we’ve been doing this that have never walked before, but after riding they started walking because riding can produce pathways in your brain that teach you how to walk and before, their disability didn’t understand how to walk. It’s very scientific and it’s a miracle and it definitely works.”
The program sees a number of participants who struggle with mental health as well. The way a horse’s brain develops is similar to someone who has experienced trauma where they are constantly thinking about “fight, flight or freeze.” This allows the participants to connect with the horse, by seeing what they are thinking and not only understanding why, but relating to those feelings.
TR4HAS has also been partnering with the Bismarck Cancer Center for around two years, after talking to physicians in the area about how the movements of the horse can help cancer patients sustain some core strength that they lost during chemotherapy.
Most recently, TR4HAS has been working with students from the University of Mary on a tutoring program while the horses are in the barn providing a calming effect on the participants, and another program that helps participants with learning disabilities.
“Reading and higher level skills take place at the very top of your brain in the neocortex and sometimes if you have a learning disability or some sort of disability, you can’t get to that neocortex the way a typical person can and you need movement and repetition,” Katie says. “Of course, the horse can give the participant those things so then we can work on those higher-level thinking skills.”
Most of the participants ride year-round, but occasionally the program takes on special cases. One such case was a man in his 90s who shared with his great-granddaughter that one of his dying wishes was to ride a horse. Although he lived over three hours from Bismarck, TR4HAS arranged with his physician and physical therapist on how they would get him on the horse and ensure he was strong enough to ride. He was able to make the trip with seven great-grandchildren, his grandchildren, children and wife, and finally ride a horse.
“That was an atypical thing, but it was really special to be able to provide that for him,” Katie says.
She recalls a wheelchair bound young boy who started riding when he was four years old. Within six months of riding, his family noticed him taking steps from the coffee table to the couch. Three years later, he is utilizing a walker at school and able to play outside with his siblings. Another participant came to the program to work through trauma and grief of losing her father to cancer. Today, she comes out and volunteers with the program once a week to help others going through their own trauma.
“I tell my husband this thing makes you so crazy because you’re so happy and then you’re so sad and then you’re so happy again,” Katie says. “But that’s what gives you that push to get up at 4:30 in the morning when you go to bed at midnight because you know what, we need this. They need this.”
Because the program is non-profit, fundraising is a large part of Katie’s weeks, although writing grants is often put on the backburner to teaching lessons and caring for the many horses that have been donated to the program.
“Every single penny we raise is utilized at TR 4 Heart & Soul,” she says. “Most of our horses are senior horses and they need a lot of geriatric care, whether that means supplements or injections, special shoes, but most of our horses do come to us on donations so they deserve and need that little bit of extra care, so fundraising is a big part.”
They put on play day horse shows and hold community events to raise some money, but the biggest fundraiser is the Blue Jeans Black Tie Affair, normally held the end of November, although last year the event had to be canceled due to Covid-19 restrictions.
“2020 was really tough,” Katie says. “At first we had to close our doors, but then we got more calls post-Covid than we ever have before because of the nature of the outdoor air, people felt safe and mental health really just became a struggle.”
If not for the volunteers, TR4HAS wouldn’t have made it through 2020, let alone the last almost six years of operating.
“Everybody asks how we get the volunteers because we operate about 100 hours per week,” Katie says. “But if you saw the connection the volunteers make with their participants that they work with, all the volunteers say it gives them way more back than what they can give the riders.”
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