By Sarah Kuper
By her own admission, Joy O’Neal had no horse sense.
“I never rode a horse growing up. I never even touched a horse until one of my kids wanted to take riding lessons,” she said.
But now, the Birmingham native is the founder and executive director of The Red Barn, a therapeutic equine riding center in Leeds.
A self-proclaimed “barn mom,” O’Neal is using her years of experience being at the barn with her five children to drive her passion. She said she saw the good horse riding did for her children, who were not disabled.
“It helped them with their struggles and I thought about what I could do to make it possible for those who might not have this opportunity,” she said. “It can be very expensive.”
The Red Barn offers weekly private or small group classes for children with physical, cognitive or emotional disabilities and even children dealing with grief or other special circumstances.
O’Neal said one example would be a child with cerebral palsy, a disorder causing loss or impairment of motor function.
“Children with cerebral palsy, their muscles can get very tight. Riding can help stretch and strengthen their legs and core,” she said.
Similarly, a child with cognitive disabilities will experience what O’Neal calls “sneaky learning,” such as how to follow a sequence of instructions by completing the steps of grooming a horse.
O’Neal said that by spending time outdoors, exercising and developing relationships with the horses and instructors, a child with emotional disabilities can overcome obstacles at home and at school.
The Red Barn sits on 33 acres in Leeds and has 16 therapy horses, an indoor arena and several outdoor rings.
The horses are many different breeds but they are all approved for equine therapy.
O’Neal said the temperament and condition of the horses is paramount when it comes to an effective therapy horse.
“It is important for the horse to be forgiving and kind, but also to be fit with even movement. If the horse isn’t fit, it is like trying to use a wheelchair on uneven ground.”
According to The Red Barn’s webpage, the organization’s core beliefs are that everyone needs a safe place to belong and feel accepted, that having fun is important and that God keeps his promise and works everything together for good.
“The experience is very fun but it is also changing their lives like no other therapy would do. The fun has a purpose,” O’Neal said.
She adds that The Red Barn is a faith-based, nonprofit organization that depends heavily on volunteers and donations of money, supplies, time and talents.
O’Neal estimates that each lesson costs up to $125 and, since insurance rarely covers equine therapy, many students must receive some amount of scholarship.
Staff members at The Red Barn pride themselves on being good stewards of donations, but they estimate operating costs to be $1,000 per day.
So, O’Neal said participation from the community is important to keep the barn up and running for children who benefit from the therapy.
In addition to weekly lessons, the barn offers summer camps, educational seminars and continuing education for equine therapy professionals.
Since it opened as The Red Barn in 2012, the agency has accomplished a lot, O’Neal said. Plus, it has given her a way to channel her passion for children even after her own are grown.
“I asked myself, ‘What am I going to do with my life?’ I had always been driving carpool. I now find that, after being a mom for so many years, I can still stay involved with kids in a meaningful way,” she said.
O’Neal is currently working hard with the staff to plan a pioneer and folklife event in April, host a St. John fashion show in May and orchestrate a fundraising race in June.
For more information on The Red Barn and ways to help, visit theredbarn.org.