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Confidence and Coincidences

Liliana- Not Afraid

Liliana has been in physical and occupational therapy since she was three. It took her two years to walk on a 1.5 inches high balance beam because she was so scared of falling. This fear translated to the barn, where she was hesitant to ride during her first lesson. She soon mounted Blue, though, and relaxed almost immediately.

Over time, Liliana has become fearless. She looks forward to her lesson every week and can’t wait to get back on the horse. Her mom, Rebecca, said she is so relaxed that you would think she has been riding for years. The barn gives Liliana a sense of connection and peace. When she is at the barn, she is no longer stressed or afraid. 

This confidence has translated to other parts of Liliana’s life. For example, going to the dentist used to be a traumatic experience for her. Since she has been riding, she no longer has meltdowns at the dentist or the doctor’s office. She now has the confidence and bravery to make it through new, intimidating experiences. Liliana is also willing to try more things in physical therapy. She understands and accepts more challenges. 

Liliana has responded very well to her instructors, and to the fact that her instructor has changed several times over the years! Their patience and encouragement has helped her understand that she can do anything she puts her mind to. 

Rammy- Transformed!

When Liliana’s riding lessons were moved to a different day of the week, her mom, Rebecca, was excited to meet some of the other Red Barn families. On the first Saturday of term, Rebecca approached the barn and found that it wasn’t all strangers. A woman was staring at her – a woman who looked oddly familiar.

“This may sound weird to you, but did we meet at a Target?”

Both women laughed as they realized the connection. Nearly five years prior, the two had met in the baby clothes section of a local Target. At the time, both were shopping for the adopted babies who would soon be coming home with them. They chatted for a while about their excitement, thrilled at the random opportunity to get to share it with a stranger who understood. Eventually, however, the two moms-to-be parted ways to continue their shopping. They did not expect to see each other ever again. 

Rebecca formally introduced herself to Kimberly, whose son Rammy was also taking lessons at The Red Barn. They caught up while their children rode, unaware of how their two stories collided. Rebecca and Kimberly marveled at the way The Red Barn was able to act as so much more than a riding facility for their families; it provided a unique sense of community and support, as well.  

As for Rammy, he developed stronger confidence, communication skills, and focus riding at The Red Barn.  He also improved his core strength and muscle tone. 

“I sincerely believe in the physical and cognitive benefits of riding because I’ve seen it with my own eyes. The barn has transformed his life. I don’t know what we would do without it!”

  • Rammy’s mom, Kimberly


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From Student to Staff


Hannah arrived at The Red Barn in June of 2011. She is the fourth child in a family of ten and was the only girl in her family until she was eight. She grew up with a deep love for horses, but had never been around them much. She had been on a horse only twice in her life: once as a three-year old and once on a trail ride with her family at age eleven. She came to the barn with a family she babysat for to help watch the kids. In return, the family offered her one of their lesson slots. Hannah’s instructor at that time suggested she volunteer. Thinking “she says this to everyone,” Hannah didn’t really consider it at the time. Given a little more time and thought, Hannah decided to see what was required for her to volunteer. 

At first, she volunteered once a week. Her lessons were infrequent and spread out quite a bit, but even by standing in the middle of the arena listening to the instructors, she began to learn about working with the horses in the saddle and on the ground, as well as how to teach. Little did Hannah know that this was the beginning of an amazing journey with The Red Barn. 

Soon Hannah was asked to help with some of the camps over the summer. There was a CHA (Certified Horsemanship Association) Seasonal Instructor class being offered at the barn, and it was recommended that she attend. She felt very out of her element as she sat around the table that first day with four or five other girls who had grown up riding, competing, and some even owning horses. She was very nervous about doing or saying something with everyone else watching. Being very shy and self-conscious made her fearful of making mistakes, but she loved the barn and used that love to push on through and pass the class. 

Over the next month or two Hannah began increasing the number of days she spent at the barn. She helped in lessons, camps, and with the horses. She saw the children come and fit in at a place where everyone is loved and accepted for who they are, not who the world says they should be. She watched as the instructors were able to tailor each lesson to the specific needs of their students. She learned about the animals she loved her entire life, how to work with the beautiful, powerful horses that were now a daily part of her life. It brought her out of her shell and gently forced her to grow and push herself to be better. The kids around her were pushing through greater struggles than she was and were succeeding. Why couldn’t she?

During the summer of 2012, Hannah’s course took a turn she never expected. She arrived at the barn one Monday morning ready to help with the camp scheduled that day. She was looking on the board for her responsibilities when one of the lead instructors walked up to her. They exchanged the usual greetings and then the instructor asked Hannah, “Have you ever thought of being an instructor?” This took Hannah a little off guard. Her? An instructor?

That was the turning point in Hannah’s life at the barn. Her role changed from a volunteer to that of intern and eventually staff. Her coworkers helped coach and mentor her through the many challenges of certification. She was given several opportunities to receive the training she needed both at The Red Barn and other similar agencies in the area. She could see the difference between large group lessons and the small group or private lessons that The Red Barn offers. While the benefit of riding could be found in both situations, Hannah loved the flexibility that existed at The Red Barn. She loved the variety of ways the horses could be used to help the children and adults. It was amazing to her the versatility equine therapy had, from a child with Cerebral Palsy who need movement to a Veteran who need the emotional connection. Hannah spent just over a year working through the instructor-in-training phase of her journey. She became certified through CHA-IRD (Certified Horsemanship Association-Instructors of Riders with Disabilities) in August of 2013 and through PATH (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship) in September 2013.

After becoming certified, Hannah began teaching at The Red Barn. She had students who were working through physical disabilities who needed to gain strength and balance, as well as those with emotional or mental needs who required an entirely different approach to teaching. Through it all, the smiles of her students have been the favorite part of her job. She has been able to watch her students’ progress over the years she has now been teaching. Their success stories are a part of her own story. She loves seeing their increased confidence, physical strength, and independence. Her greatest desires are for her students to feel needed, loved, wanted, and as she found hers.

Over the years, Hannah has worked with students from many different backgrounds. There are those with autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, ADHD, depression and traumatic brain injuries. Some of the children come from families that are large, while others are the only child. There are students who have been adopted or have an adopted sibling. Many of the students come from homes that struggle to make ends meet. The needs and struggles of the students who ride at The Red Barn are different for each. The staff at The Red Barn do their best to relate to each student and parent on the level they personally need, whether that’s just working with the child or being a listening ear to a struggling parent. They seek to have empathy and compassion for all who come on the property. They all have their own story, just like Hannah.

These days, Hannah can be found at home with her precious husband and daughter, doing projects for the barn as needed. She has been known to fill in when we’re in a tight spot, and we’re so grateful!

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Empowering Others- Grace’s Story

The daily activities at The Red Barn would not be possible without the help of our incredible volunteers. One of the people behind the volunteers, Grace Butler, constantly ensures that there are enough people in each lesson, camp, and gathering. Her background is in teaching pre-school children, but her gift is inspiring the ones who make this job possible.

While Grace would never boast about herself, others can easily see the positive influence she has not only on the staff, but on everyone she comes in contact with. While the way she spends her days has changed over the years, a few things remain true:

  • if there is a microphone around, we’re probably putting it into Grace’s hands
  • if there is a camera around, we’re probably asking Grace to stand in front of it
  • if there is a volunteer or donor around, she is probably giving them a big hug
  • and if there’s anything good that can be said about The Red Barn, she probably has a hand in making it happen. 

During her initial interview process, it became clear to everyone that Grace was the missing piece in the Red Barn puzzle. What started out as training and scheduling volunteers has morphed into a new position at the barn, Public Relations Coordinator. She is now the face of tours at The Red Barn. As she walks around with the tour groups, she spiritedly recounts the story and history of each part of the property.  Grace is also the voice of the barn! She has lost count of the number of radio and television interviews she has done, but the rest of the camera-shy staff could not be more appreciative. 

Logistically, Grace would be very difficult to “replace.” But speaking from a morale standpoint, her passion for the mission and the people at The Red Barn is irreplaceable. “Grace” is an apt name for her.

While she impacts everyone around her, Grace talks about how The Red Barn has impacted her as well. She says, “I have seen myself become confident. I no longer wonder if I can do it. Now, I think I could try anything.” 

This confidence and determination comes from her experience with one of our students. One day, Grace filled in for a volunteer who was unable to make it to Suki’s lesson. Suki suffers from a rare disability which causes her systems to gradually shut down. Despite her disability, Suki pushes through the physical challenges that come with horseback riding. Each lesson she practices trying to motivate her muscles to push herself up out of the saddle and then relax to bring herself back down. This task is not easy for anyone. It is a skill that riders have to work on and perfect for years. After a few months sidewalking in Suki’s lessons, Grace witnessed what few thought possible: her posting at the trot. Suki did it with incredible strength and poise, leaving Grace in awe.  

Suki through the years…







This determined little girl accomplished her goal and reminded Grace that she could accomplish anything, too. It is a story that Grace will never forget. Whenever she feels like she can’t do something, she thinks of Suki and knows that she can. 

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Partnering to Improve the Lives of Children with Disabilities and Communication Disorders

Children with communication disorders and other disabilities are often misunderstood by others who come in contact with them. For many children, these misunderstandings can result in undesirable encounters with law enforcement officers, some even resulting in arrest and imprisonment. Very little training is provided for law enforcement officers in how to appropriately communicate with individuals who have communication disorders and/or disabilities. Those who have communication disorders or disabilities often struggle with responding appropriately in stressful situations, understanding and following directions, and complying with direct orders. Children with these kinds of disabilities are not regularly exposed to law enforcement officers and taught how to respond correctly. Minimal training for officers, as well as limited interactions between the two groups, can create a perfect storm of confusion, distrust, and misunderstanding.

What is being done about this issue? I’m glad you asked! The Red Barn has partnered with the JAYC Foundation on an initiative to close the gap between children with disabilities and law enforcement officers. The American Legion Child Welfare Foundation has awarded a grant that will provide the resources to create an educational video for officers, as well as a social story for children. The instructional video will be made available online. The social story will also be available to download, which will explain to children what they should do if approached by a police officer. Additional resources for parents will be provided free of charge on the JAYC website.

Filming the video at The Red Barn








Everyone involved in this project hopes that schools (many of which now have a full-time police presence) and police precincts will incorporate these free resources to better prepare for interactions between these two wonderful groups of people.

The Red Barn and other similar agencies around the country will extend opportunities to local law enforcement agencies to have opportunities to interact with horses. What do horses have to do with this? Well, horses cannot speak and tell you what they are thinking. They use non-verbal indicators to communicate with others. While most of their communication is very different from humans, there are similarities. Teaching adults how to read the body language of horses and how to approach them safely helps prepare them for working with individuals with communication disorders.

Our very own founder, Joy O’Neal, has been working diligently on this project with Jaycee Dugard, Rebecca Bailey, Laura Vogtle, Jan Rowe, and Shelley Jones, as well as numerous parents of children with communication disorders. We want to thank all of these organizations and individuals for continually working toward the goal of making our world a more inclusive and understanding place!

Lights, camera, action!








We are so excited about this amazing opportunity to further serve children with disabilities, improving their lives, and teaching others how to communicate effectively with them. The potential exists for amazing progress to be made in this area, so please pray with us for the success of this program!

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Our Invaluable Summer Interns

Amazing Interns

The Red Barn could not operate with just our staff alone. As hard as we work, it is physically impossible for our small staff to serve 100 kids a week all while caring for 16 horses, 4 goats, 3 bunnies, 2 cats, and a 31-acre property that needs constant upkeep and repair. Thankfully, the barn is blessed with help from an amazing group of volunteers! And every summer, a number of high school volunteers pursue an internship at the Red Barn. This year we had six such interns: Abi, Alyssa, Cianan, Emily, Olivia, and Taylor.

Our summer interns help with everything! From side-walking and horse-handling in group riding lessons, to assisting in unmounted camps, and helping complete the daily and weekly tasks necessary to the barn’s operation. Their help is invaluable, especially when factoring in the grueling summertime heat and humidity. It’s not easy mucking stalls when you are sweat-soaked and exhausted after an 8-hour day, but our interns never once complained.

They also fill important roles as peer helpers to our students. Teenage interns and volunteers help bridge the age gap between our instructors and students, enabling younger students to feel more comfortable and willing to engage. Every child and young teen needs someone close to their age that they can both relate to and look up to. I can’t think of better peer role models than our six summer interns.

We cannot thank our interns enough for their hard work and sincerely hope our symbiotic relationship provided them with plenty of valuable knowledge and experience. Working with the population we serve can provide insight for any young person interested in pursuing careers in education, counseling, occupational therapy, and many other fields. Furthermore, and possibly even more importantly, this kind of work serves to build empathy and compassion.

Our internship program also requires each intern complete a research-based project. The projects this year included:

• A promotional video for the Red Barn
• A 5-page research paper covering insurance and accessible riding
• A spinning wheel that offers students options in a fun, engaging way
• A PowerPoint connecting Christ to horseback riding
• A felt board to be used in unmounted lessons that works on a student’s fine motor skills
• A school curriculum designed to be accessible and engaging to students of all kinds

I speak for the entire staff when I say that we are impressed by our interns’ amazing creativity and hard work. All six of you played invaluable roles in making this Summer term successful. Thank you so much Abi, Alyssa, Cianan, Emily, Olivia, and Taylor for all your dedication!



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What the Take the Reins Run Means to Us

After being deployed three times, once to Iraq, our son, USMC Cpl. Anthony Clay Ward died by suicide on June 13, 2009.  You hear a great deal about men returning with PTSD or TBI (traumatic brain injury), but also many men carry ‘moral injuries ‘ which war can bring. Clay suffered from the injuries to his soul.

As Clay’s Mom (Debbie Ward), I became friends with many of his Marine brothers. They and their families have blessed ours tremendously! Some of these men contacted me in 2014 with a plan to come to town in 2015 and run 6 miles in memory of the 6th anniversary of Clay’s death. The Red Barn is a big part of our family, so when I bounced ideas off the staff,  Joy O’Neal offered to host the run through The Red Barn. Needless to say, I was delighted!! The Take the Reins Run has now become an annual event; this year our 4th!

The run has been such a healing time for all of us, our family as well as his Marine brothers. 


Each year we’ve had 20-35 Marines (counting family members). It is amazing to see many men return every year. You may think that this would be a sad time, but not so. We remember all the good times (and do they have stories!), celebrate Clay’s by living in the moment of the reunion. Great healing has taken place through various things we do, including our annual trip to the Red Barn. They don’t want to leave!

I am often asked how the Run has helped us or Clay’s Marine brothers heal.  After Clay’s death, we found The Red Barn. Our daughter, Abi, Clay’s sister, began to participate in many of the programs offered by the barn. As a family, we integrated ourselves into many aspects of the barn.  While our hearts will always be wounded, we began to heal.

As for the Marines, I think one of Clay’s Marine brothers, Joseph, says it well.  Joseph’s note from 2017:

“Last weekend was such a spectacular time which lasted as quick as a blink of an eye. We gathered from across the nation once again to remember our brother who left us way too soon from his PTSD wound, Cpl. Anthony Clay Ward. Not only does this bring awareness outside the military/veteran community but his memory lives on through us. Each gathering has been helpful for many of us to cope and heal in our own way and helped enable us to share our experiences with others, which is the most difficult thing to do. With each gathering, our bond/brotherhood grows stronger and so does Clay’s memory. Momma Ward, Allan, and Abi, you have opened your home to us strangers and embraced us into your heart as family with such love and kindness that is insurmountable. Thank you! As Allan said after the run, “It’s now tradition” which means more participants will arrive and so will more veterans who knew Clay. Looking forward to creating more memories next year with all of you amazing people. Love you all and Semper Fidelis Joseph Mitjavila Los Angeles, CA”

Get ready, THE MARINES ARE COMING!  Please come out to greet them and thank them for their service! Give them a warm Alabama welcome! 

– Debbie Ward
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Have a Special Needs Child? Read These Articles!

The staff at The Red Barn have a special vantage point for seeing the unique trials faced by parents of children with special needs. Parenting is difficult even if your child is typical, but it is “a whole different ball game” when your child faces challenges every day that most people do not face in their whole lives.

For this reason, our amazing intern Emily Davidson put together a list of resources for our parents and anyone else who could benefit! This great information has been written by other people and agencies and we do not own any of the following content, but we do hope that this is helpful for the parents of our students.

  1. 10 Reasons Special Needs Parents Should Join a Support Group
  2. Parenting a Special Needs Child
  3. Mental Health Benefits: State Laws Mandating or Regulating
  4. 7 Things You Don’t Know About a Special Needs Parent
  5. Parent to Parent USA/Alabama
  6. National Autism Academy Offers Free 7-Part Video Series for Parents of Autistic Children
  7. Special Needs Kids Don’t Need Special Parents
  8. 20 Things Every Parent of Kids with Special Needs Should Hear
  9. Caring for Siblings of Children with Special Needs
  10. Disciplining Your Child with Special Needs
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Hello… and Goodbye

We love teaching. We believe in helping others learn how to facilitate healing with the aid of horses. Equine-assisted therapies are effective, not to mention fun, so why not be excited about teaching up-and-coming professionals in the field?

We also LOVE OUR VOLUNTEERS! Volunteers provide essential hands during lessons and camps, contribute new and fresh ideas for our programs, assist in the strategic planning process, and help us to pull off special events.

These two passions converge in our internship program. Every year, the best of the best college interns grace our barns to lend a hand while gaining invaluable professional experience. Interns are invited to participate in everything- the day-to-day of running a barn and caring for horses, planning camps and classes, attending staff meetings, giving input on important decisions, and of course, serving our adorable students.

Here’s a glimpse into our two amazing interns “on staff” right now.











MaryBeth Knapp is a 22-year-old, horse-loving, Huntsville native. She earned her Equine Science degree from Auburn University and is now working to become a PATH certified instructor. She first learned about The Red Barn while studying at AU, and we are so grateful that she liked what she learned!

MaryBeth is now interning at the barn at least through the summer. She already has the riding experience needed for her future career since she began riding dressage when she was only 10 years old. But now she is getting experience working with people of all abilities while assisting during lessons, helping care for the horses, doing barn chores, and even helping with camps and social skills classes!

Please help us welcome MaryBeth if you see her around the barn!

Goodbye… 🙁










Emily Davidson is a 24-year-old Masters of Social Work student at the University of Alabama. She was born in Florence and received her bachelor’s degree in Social Work from the University of North Alabama. She grew up with horses and knew that she wanted to help people and work with vulnerable populations, so it was not difficult to put the two together when she toured The Red Barn last year. Wasting no time, Emily immediately asked Joy about the possibility of an internship. No surprise- her internship began in January!

While interning at the barn, Emily has been helping with lessons and camps, doing needs assessments with the parents of our students, completing some of the never-ending barn chores, and she has also put together a resource guide for the parents of our students. (Pssst: You can look for that resource guide to be published here within the next week!)

Emily is breaking ground as the University of Alabama’s first Social Work student to intern in EAT (equine assisted therapy). After graduating on May 4, she hopes to eventually use her love and knowledge of horses while providing services to those in need.

Please help us congratulate Emily on her upcoming graduation and thank her for all of the hard work she has put in at the barn! Leave her a word of encouragement on our Facebook page.

Your donations make it possible to share faith, hope, and love with children and train tomorrow’s leaders of the equine industry.  Give today to continue doubling the impact of your donation to reach even more children and families in need.


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Keep Calm. Spring is Coming!

What does it take to have an amazing spring term?

Our spring term begins on Monday, April 2! We are so excited about the beautiful weather and to see the smiling faces of our students. But have you wondered what it takes to “pull off” a spring term at The Red Barn?

Admin Team

Let’s start with the administrative side of things. First, the previous fall term’s students are contacted to confirm that they’d like to return for the spring. Then their day of the week and time for their lesson are both confirmed and the student is placed on the spring schedule. Once the returning students are scheduled, the waiting list is examined to determine if there are any availabilities that match an open time spot with an appropriate horse and instructor.  Click here to read more about our waiting list. At the same time, staff schedules are also being planned for the term and updated student paperwork is received and processed.

Programs Team

Instructors discuss riding goals with the parents and students as well as determine how many volunteers will be needed for their lesson if any.  Available volunteers are paired up with the students who need them the most. Meetings are scheduled so that student, parent, volunteer(s), and the instructor can meet and get familiar with each other. This allows students to be more comfortable with their lesson helpers, volunteers to be better prepared, instructors to know what to expect, and parents to share their goals for their child’s upcoming term.

Once lesson goals are decided they are entered into the database. Contact information is used to invoice parents. Lesson plans are created based on goals for students and shared with necessary staff members.

Is a theme coming through here? Personalization! Experiences are tailor-made for our students, factoring in all available information for the utmost safety, efficiency, effectiveness, and FUN!

Annual tasks are being completed at this time as well, such as preparing information for the 990, compiling the program evaluation for the previous year, and developing the annual report for the previous year. All of this while carrying on the year-long duties of paying the bills, fundraising, planning events, conducting tours, fielding new calls of interest, screening and training new volunteers and interns, and helping other similar agencies start up or improve their programs.

Horse Team

Now let’s talk about the horses. I mean, we couldn’t do what we do without them! Most of the horses haven’t been riding the trails over the winter, so our horse team is working with them to become familiar with the trails again. Mock lessons are being done so that our equine staff members are refreshed on how to do their jobs! Now that the days are getting warmer and the nights aren’t quite so chilly, the horses are being rotated to their spring/summer pasture rotation of being inside the barn during the day and out at night.  In preparation for the spring, the horses (and staff members) are being worked pretty hard so that they are all in their very best shape for our students.

Operations and Property Team

And what would a visit to The Red Barn be without being able to take in the gorgeous, peaceful sights?

Red barn and carvings

There are pastures to be seeded, grassy areas to be trimmed, weeds to be sprayed, tree limbs to be picked up, trails to clear for safety, sidewalks to edge, fences to mend, and structures to be pressure washed! The list goes on!

While you might be thinking that this sounds a bit exhausting, we think that it sounds like a normal season at The Red Barn. This is what we do: plan, clean, cut, clear, organize, strategize, update, PLAN, PLAN, PLAN. All for your kiddos because we know that having a place to feel loved and accepted can make all the difference in the world.