“We think horses are amazing, God-given animals that can do wonders. Every time I leave the barn, I feel better. You’re outside; you’re with 30 really large, beautiful animals. That’s why we’re here. That’s why we do it.” // Becky Sweeney
“I DID IT! I DID IT! CAROLINE, I DID IT!” CHAD BANCKS SLAPS THE REINS AND TAKES ANOTHER LAP AROUND THE COVERED ARENA AT EDEN FARMS IN MARIETTA, SOUTH CAROLINA. AT 16 HANDS AND 1,200 POUNDS, LEXI, THE CHESTNUT MARE, IS INTIMIDATING TO MOST. BUT THE SMILE EMANATING FROM CHAD’S FACE HIDES ANY CONCERN THE 10-YEAR-OLD MAY HAVE. “CAN WE DO RED LIGHT, GREEN LIGHT? I LOVE THAT GAME! I LOVE THAT GAME, MISS CAROLINE.”
Chad’s mom Lynda Bancks looks on with a rare sense of peace as her son prompts Lexi to follow Caroline, a certified therapeutic-riding instructor, through an obstacle course. It’s not easy raising an autistic child. “The horse therapy is good for him. It’s helped him a lot,” she confides. “We started coming here a year ago. He loves the movement of the horse, it calms him.” Chad is one of 60 special-needs children and adults who ride each week at the Happy Hooves Therapeutic Equestrian Center located at Eden Farms.
No one is more surprised with the explosive growth of Happy Hooves than Eden Farms’s owner and operator Amy Goudelock. “God had a big plan, and He didn’t want us to know or we would have chickened out,” she jokes. Amy, an N.I.C.U. nurse, and her husband, pediatric doctor Gary Goudelock, were looking for a way to continue to work with youth while their own children finished college in 1999. Similar to Noah and his ark, they prayed and heard a message to purchase land and build a huge, 40-stall barn at the foot of Table Rock Mountain. “Friends kept asking why we were building such a large place,” recalls Amy. “It’s definitely way bigger than I ever would have imagined. We did what God told us to do and opened this as a ministry. We never envisioned so many kids would come and be served.”
Eden Farms is the Taj Mahal of Upstate stables. Dozens of immaculate stalls house Trakehner, Belgian, Appendix, Percheron- Appaloosa, Welsh ponies, and Tennessee walking horses. Riders of all abilities take to the saddle for sport, leisure, and therapy, utilizing three arenas and six trails that crisscross 170 acres of rolling foothills. Public lessons, parties, trail rides, and boarding through Eden Farms sustain the nonprofit work of Happy Hooves.
Amy’s daughter Becky Sweeney serves as barn manager, working daily at the farm since graduating from college. “Mom said, ‘Come help me start this therapy-riding program,’” she remembers with a laugh. “I thought I was going to do mission work overseas, so said I’d do it for six months. That was 14 years ago. Talk about getting hooked in with horses and family. I wouldn’t trade it. It’s a great way to make a difference.”
Studies show it is. The Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH) estimates more than 56,000 special-needs children and adults benefit from involvement with horses around the world. Happy Hooves is one of four PATH Premier Accredited Centers in South Carolina offering therapeutic riding. Participants may struggle with developmental delays, including autism, or cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, muscular dystrophy, speech or visual complications, and other impairments.
Chad’s mom agrees. “It’s therapy, but he doesn’t think it is. One of Chad’s favorite activities is the Sensory Trail. Autistic kids can have sensory issues. They crave touching different textures. He lays over the side of the horse, he brushes his horse, he likes the way it feels on his body,” she says. The 10-station trail hits all of the five senses, even smell, with a quiz after handling rosemary and lemon verbena plants. (Which hand makes you think about a lemonade stand?) At other stations, riders put basketballs through hoops, or manipulate wind chimes as they pass by on their mount.
Becky points to the emotional benefits of such activities for the child, as well as mom dad. “These parents are used to saying, ‘My child cannot play soccer, and my child cannot do ballet.’ But how many parents can say, ‘My child is the only one in class who gets to ride horses every week!’”
And that brings us to the unique emotional union between horse and human. “Chad bonds with the horse,” Lynda shares. “It’s harder for him socially, and he doesn’t have a lot of friends. He feels like he can communicate with the horse better than a person. He feels like he has a bunch of friends here. They are consistent and reliable. He loves it.”
The routine is good for him, as it is for most autistic children, but the newfound power he utilizes in the saddle could have the biggest impact. “We tried karate and gymnastics, lots of different activities. But they didn’t work,” Lynda explains. “Chad likes to have control. His world is very different from mine, or yours. In his world so many things are out of control, so it’s important for him to feel like he has control.” And here, he’s controlling a creature twelve times his size.
“We think horses are amazing, God-given animals that can do wonders,” says Becky. Every time I leave the barn, I feel better. You’re outside; you’re with 30 really large, beautiful animals. That’s why we’re here. That’s why we do it.”
Becky, Caroline, and a posse of volunteers work with several dozen therapy students who ride on a weekly basis. In addition, the arenas overflow with special-needs or high-risk visitors from area schools and programs including the Meyer Center, the Frazee Dream Center, United Way, and Camp Courage. As Happy Hooves hosts those groups, Eden Farms also serves as a learning ground for local 4-H Clubs, home-schoolers, Girl Scouts, and even Greenville Tech’s vet tech students.
Becky walks the stables, sneaking a peppermint to a huge Belgian draft mare. “Oh, look at you, ignoring me until you hear the candy wrapper crinkle,” she scolds, as she caresses the horse’s nose. It’s hard to tell whom Becky loves more, the horses or the children. “I can’t imagine doing anything else,” she shares. “When you work with your family, it’s great. I’m working outdoors, and I’m helping children benefit through the healing power of horses. It’s hard work, but it’s good work.”
And in her family’s eyes, it’s soul work.