PROFILE: Horse-Riding Ministry Helps Kids Reach For The Stars

by Amber Weigand-Buckley

When you think of typical church ministries, horse riding therapy probably doesn’t spring to mind. But for Pastor Gerry Stoltzfoos of Freedom Valley Church in Gettysburg, Pa., putting priority on that ministry has grown the church more than any other outreach.

Brandy Crago, director of Shining Stars Therapeutic Ministries, is a world champion trick rider. She wanted to get off the road as her daughter became a teenager. So she approached the pastor with the idea of starting a ministry for handicapped kids.

Crago borrowed some land from the church and put up a corral. This served the ministry for the first seven years. But it was only a seasonal outreach, as weather permitted.

“As the demand increased, we wanted to just put a roof over the corral so we could keep it open all year long, but it got much more complicated,” Stoltzfoos says.

To promote the enclosed corral project, the church put a sign out front that said, “Please pray for us. We need a building for our handicapped ministry.”

Money not only came in from the church, but from the community. One person was driving by, saw the sign, and wrote a check for $100,000.

The congregation dedicated the 15,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art facility last September. Now there are 160 volunteers from 20 different churches serving more than 100 severely handicapped children.

As the ministry grew over the years, so did church attendance and church planting. Since launching Shining Stars, the church has planted 36 churches. The church also trains other congregations to start their own horse therapy programs.

At the beginning of the season, a small team meets with families to discuss goals for their children. Stoltzfoos says parents are often moved by the concern and compassion they encounter. Medical teams help determine each child’s needs and abilities. The group then prays for the families and the goals they set.

“We had a 14-year-old — there was no big goal except just to take a few steps, just to be able to sit up,” Stoltzfoos says. “It took some years for her to develop the strength to sit up, and some years to learn to be able to recognize family and talk. Some of these kids come, and they ride on the horse facedown, spread eagle at first. There are four to five volunteers per horse, depending on the child. But it’s a tremendous team.”

Stoltzfoos says horse therapy is an effective tool in helping children with special needs, though no one can explain with certainty why it works.

“It might be the interaction with the adults,” Stoltzfoos says. “It might be that someone’s expressing tremendous joy at having this child show up. But we know that these children are leaping in their personal development. It’s just an incredible thing to be part of. We feel like it’s everyday miracles happening all around us.”

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Amber Weigand-Buckley, freelance writer, Springfield, Missouri