The lighting in the tack room is dim, but when Jacklyn White steps out into the sunlight of the open-air barn, her smile is as bright as the morning sun. She is tall and physically fit, with her brown hair tied back in a long ponytail, and dressed in jeans, brown cowboy boots, and a yellow Philanthropy T-shirt. Her arms are full with a leather saddle and padded blanket, but she still attempts to hug the rosy-cheeked, jodhpur-clad girl who hurries towards her. Jacklyn hugs the girl in a tight, one-armed squeeze and animatedly engages her in conversation about school, while still steadily holding the weighty saddle in the other arm. Her whole demeanor is pure excitement, which causes the girl to hug her waist harder and smile wider.
“Jacklyn is just so sweet,” says the mother of the girl, who is looking on at the interaction between instructor and student. “She knows just how to get on their level and communicate.”
Jacklyn White is a therapeutic horseback-riding instructor with four years of teaching experience at Butterfly Dreams Farm, and her student is Lilly Martin, an 8-year-old girl with low muscle tone and learning disabilities who has been taught by Jacklyn for a year. Leah Martin, Lilly’s mother, recalls that when Lilly first began learning to ride with Jacklyn, she needed a person walking on either side of the horse to steady her due to her low muscle tone. Now after a year of instruction, Lilly no longer requires anyone to help her keep her seat on the horse, and is only led on a lead line by another volunteer around the ring during her lessons.
Butterfly Dreams Therapeutic Farm is a nonprofit, volunteer-based organization in Watkinsville, Georgia that uses horseback riding as therapy for children with special needs. The farm specializes in two types of therapy: hippotherapy and therapeutic riding. In hippotherapy, horses act more as a tool for children with motor deficits to help stimulate the movement of walking and helps build muscle strength, endurance, and core strength. Children who participate in therapeutic riding learn how to care for a horse by grooming them and actually learning how to ride with assistance from volunteers, which teaches special needs children independence, confidence, communication and improved concentration.
“The changes that can happen in these kids from interaction with horses is just incredible,” Jacklyn says as she supervises another volunteer helping Lilly brush Toby, the brown-and-white speckled gelding she is riding that day. Tear begin to form as she recalls a little girl she once taught who had been sexually abused by her father.
“One day during one of our lessons, she told me that it was the first time she had ever felt happy,” she says, “To hear that from a child is just heartbreaking.”
The arrival of Jacklyn’s second student, Sam Goggin, triggers another round of hugs and excited inquiries about school and health from Jacklyn, and he is just as thrilled to be at the barn as his fellow classmate. He is 11-years-old with floppy brown hair, freckles, and a contagious smile that shows off his braces. He has cognitive delays and has been riding horses since he was three. After telling Sam how tall he has grown since she last saw him, Jacklyn tells both students to say hello to one another and then has them tack up their horses with the volunteers. Sam’s older sister Kate silently and diligently assists him as he chatters. Kate works as a volunteer during Sam’s lessons, since Butterfly Dreams allows siblings to participate in students’ lessons. Sam pauses in brushing Ginger, his Paint horse, to study his sleeves. He trots over to Jacklyn and presents his sleeves, covered in horsehair, to her. He doesn’t seem particularly worried, just fascinated by the collection of it by the fleece material of his jacket.
“It’s alright, Sam,” Jacklyn assures him and he returns promptly to brushing Ginger. When he is out of earshot, Jacklyn explains that he used to have a severe aversion to the dirt and hair that would collect on him while being at the barn, and that now he only has a slight reaction to it.
Lilly suddenly loses her balance and falls against Toby while trying to brush his legs, but he hardly flinches as she pushes against him to regain her balance with Jacklyn’s assistance. The horses at Butterfly Dreams—just like their instructors—are calm, cool, collected, and caring in regard to the children. The horses used at the barn are based out of a loaning program: outside horse owners lease their horses to Butterfly Dreams, and when the horses can no longer do the job, they are sent back. There are eight horses lodged at Butterfly Dreams and the number is constantly changing based on age and temperament.
“We choose horses on the older side—between 18 and 20 years old, and even up to 25 years because the older ones are less likely to spook than younger, spirited ones,” says Jacklyn. The horses that are chosen must pass a series of stringent tests that determine temperament and movement at the three different gaits: walk, trot, and canter. “Movement is very important because one horses gait might be on the bouncier side,” says Jacklyn, “and some students respond better to that type of stimulating movement than a slower, smoother gait. And vice versa. It all depends on the students we have and what works best for them.”
Sam and Lilly’s lesson consists of games to stimulate the minds and work different parts of the brain at the same time. There is much to concentrate on for these kids: steering, staying seated, listening to Jacklyn and verbally responding to her commands. The volunteers mostly act as a safety net rather than actual guidance; at one point during the lesson, Kate even unhooks the lead line from Ginger’s harness and trots alongside the horse and her brother.
‘Horsey Says’ is the children’s favorite game: a version of ‘Simon Says’ that Jacklyn calls out to them while they are riding. She starts out slow, and then the commands come faster and faster, so that the children’s arms are blurs trying to keep up with her voice. However, they win the game and Jacklyn does 10 jumping jacks, much to the children’s delight.
Sherri Goggin, Sam’s mother, approaches the riding ring at the end of the lesson, as Jacklyn sings Sam a song about the Cookie Monster and tickles him, which makes him laugh so hard that he reaches down and hugs her neck, pressing her cheek to his. Sherri attributes the riding therapy to the amount of progress that they have had with his cognitive disabilities. “I had one doctor tell me that my son would never speak. He was nonverbal when he started,” she says, while taking pictures of Sam telling Jacklyn what he wants to be for Halloween.
Both Sam and Lilly won blue ribbons in the horse show that the Four Seasons Farm in Madison holds every year as a benefit for Butterfly Dreams. Sam won his ribbon out of eight competing Butterfly Dreams students because he was the only one who could perform a posting trot.
After both students dismounted from their horses, Jacklyn has each of them lead their horse back to the barn and untack the horses themselves, giving gentle and guiding commands the entire times. Both children go back through all the steps they performed at the beginning of the lesson, taking breaks to tell a story to Jacklyn or give treat to Toby and Ginger. Jacklyn listens with genuine interest and patiently guides them back to the tasks at hand, always attentive of their safety and temperament. If they are the slightest bit forgetful of their surroundings or what they are doing, she guides them back with a kind hand. The one task the children don’t ever seem to forget at Butterfly Dreams is to always give Jacklyn as many hugs as they can and to let her know how glad they are to see her and the horses.