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Near and Far

I Love The Red Barn

Grace, left, and Shannon, right

I love The Red Barn. I’m sure that you do too, but I REALLY love The Red Barn. I love the people, the property, the organizational structure, the organization, the inner workings, the mission, the children, the horses, the cats. I LOVE The Red Barn. Everything in my life brought me here and prepared me to contribute to the success of the barn. 

As a child, empathy was my downfall. I felt everything that I thought everyone else was feeling, and I felt it deeply and sometimes to my detriment. Other people’s struggles became my very own. Anxiety and depression became my constant companions, and I was not okay. The worry was absolutely never-ending- worry about my parents, my siblings, my safety, my pets, my friends, my grades, my home, my extended family, the WHOLE world and all of its problems. 

Experiencing trauma as a young teen catapulted me into new depths of despair. An eating disorder, suicidal thoughts, prescription drug abuse, and moral decay brought me to rock bottom. Finally, therapy and medication became my new constant companions, and I survived high school and college. 

During college, my husband and I decided that we could not wait to get married. So, we didn’t wait. We married at 20, I continued on to graduate from UAB in 2002, and suddenly we were expecting a baby! Gabriel Michael was born on July 9, 2003 at St. Vincent’s Hospital in downtown Birmingham. Becoming a mother changed my future career plans because I absolutely could not handle crime scenes, forensic evidence, or the details of people hurting each other anymore. That Criminal Justice degree wasn’t going to cut it! 

Entering the Nonprofit World

The Master’s of Public Administration program at UAB drew me in as the dreams of helping people in an administrative capacity unfolded in my mind. Not direct service, not counseling, not too close to the hurt and pain, but still doing my part to make the world a better place. 

God surely knew what He was doing guiding me here! I began graduate school and quickly started interning for nonprofit organizations. A short stint with a large, international nonprofit solidified for me that a small nonprofit was the way for me to go. Pretty quickly, I was placed in an internship with a small nonprofit in Birmingham, an agency that served homeless women and their children. Right where I was supposed to be.

That internship turned into a full-time job and a career in nonprofit. While managing volunteers, working intensely with fundraising, writing grant proposals, organizing events, and managing donor data, I learned so much about nonprofit work and myself. I also met Joy O’Neal. 

Joy served as an active board member for this organization, and thankfully we had lots of dealings with each other. A professional acquaintance grew into a friendship. I had an enormous amount of respect for Joy and her contributions to the work.

Funny fact: Somehow, Joy and I have managed to know each other for 18 years and don’t have a single picture of just the two of us!

Miracles Still Happen

When her family opened the barn, she invited me out to a ladies night. For the first time, I got to be close to a horse. Wow! I fell apart! Apparently, as I was grooming and painting Glory, my heart rate slowed to match hers, my defenses came down, and I began to unravel as I relaxed and processed life. Parenthood was hard, bringing an unbelievable amount of anxiety and worry to my mama heart. 

Then, my son began riding at the barn. He was struggling with some of the same issues I had as a child, and riding really gave him another focus, something to be successful at, and time away from all that he was carrying. Being at the barn was an effective outlet for him, even though he didn’t follow directions and got stepped on the first time he came to the barn! 

Alaina, left, and Gabe, right

In 2012, my husband and I decided that it was time for a change of pace. Slower, closer to home, and less stressful were the goals. We also wanted to eventually homeschool our children. I wanted to be more “at home” if that makes sense. Lofty goals that we had not been able to reach for a couple of years due to financial responsibilities. Well, the stars aligned, and we paid off all of our debt almost simultaneously with Joy’s family opening The Red Barn. 

Seriously, it was a miracle. It was “supposed to” take 7 years for us to pay off our debt (making it 2017 when we were done). Instead, it took 26 months! Joy asked me to come and work at The Red Barn. To say that I jumped at the opportunity would be the understatement of the century. The barn was 9 miles from home. It was small, beautiful, peaceful, serene, special, and had an amazing mission. It was perfect. AND Joy was running it. Bingo! I hit the job lottery!

I Am Grateful

Over the past nine years, our lives have changed drastically. My best friend, Grace, joined the team as I transitioned to working part-time to be at home more. Yes, this means that I get to work with my best friend. We did start homeschooling our kiddos in 2013. The Horsley family no longer lives in Alabama but instead in Gulfport, Mississippi. Almost all that I do can be done from home, so I am still on the bus, as we often say thanks to Joy’s fondness for Jim Collins’ books!

Working from home with that homeschool map in the background!

Working from home 5 hours away from the barn is challenging. Virtual meetings are just not the same as being in-person, face-to-face, eating meals together and chatting about small things that end up being big things. I miss the camaraderie, seeing the pristine property every day, petting Xena and having her hiss at me, meeting the new horses, watching them graze, seeing the kids’ faces light up as they achieve something new, driving up in the morning and seeing deer in the pasture with the horses. It cannot be wonderful for everyone at the barn for me to be so far away either, not as quick to handle things as I could be if in the office. Yet, we all make it work.

I am so grateful that my experiences as a child gave me an understanding and compassion for the kids we serve. I am so grateful that college pushed me to the nonprofit field. I am so grateful that I get to serve such amazing people with such amazing people. I am so grateful that I get to continue learning how to do this nonprofit thing from a leader like Joy. I am so grateful that I get to watch, from the inside, how a nonprofit can grow, adapting to the needs of the community and the climate of the culture. 

I am so grateful, and I LOVE The Red Barn.

“When I am in town, I LOVE cooking for the staff! Kale chips are my specialty but I’ll cook anything they like.”

 

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Get Your Eyes Fixed by Jason Daggett

As a kid, I used to watch a lot of baseball. I loved seeing the big leaguers get in the batter’s box, dig in, and get set for the ball to be delivered. I loved it all. Then I realized one day that the grass on the field was amazing. The different patterns and shapes that were on the fields were incredible. I was speechless one night when the Chicago White Sox came on TV and had the most intricate pattern I had ever seen. They had lines birthed by second base extending out to the fence that looked like the rays of the sun. I fell in love less with baseball but more with the grass patterns. They had even put the White Sox logo in centerfield. What a gorgeous sight! 

I had to know how to recreate those patterns, how to get the beautiful perfectly straight lines across my yard and the other yards in my neighborhood that I mowed. So, for the next five yards, I worked on cutting in straight lines. I started by trying to just use the edge of the sidewalk or driveway and just going with the pattern of the walkway. Then I would come back in the opposite direction twenty-one inches over and repeat until lawn perfection was achieved. Wow, what a mess! The first thing I discovered was the path I started with was not perfectly straight. I then learned that if the first cut path isn’t straight, the rest of the cuts just get farther and farther off. Lawn perfection was certainly not achieved after all! 

I puzzled for some time on how to get this straight. I thought of actually driving a stake in the ground and pulling a string to get a perfect line. It was a solid idea in theory, but not at all practical. I tried to just walk straight. I pushed the mower and made a conscious effort to go straight forward. Whenever I felt myself drifting, I would look down to correct my path. Then God spoke in a small voice about his friend, Peter. As I puzzled about how to get a perfect path, God reminded me of two different verses. 

Proverbs 3: 4-5, Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding, in all your ways acknowledge him and he will make your paths straight.

That is what I wanted, straight lines (paths) in my grass. Is that what Proverbs meant? Could God’s love of grass be the same as mine? This was exciting that the creator of lawns cared enough to put that verse in the Bible just for me. Wow!

Then I thought of Peter in Matthew 14. Peter is known for a lot, but his short walking on water gig will live in vacation Bible school curriculums for eternity. Peter took his eyes off Jesus and became a sinking rock. The Proverbs verse and the Matthew 14 story of Peter and Jesus hit me right between the eyes.

I grabbed my mower and went to the corner of the largest yard in my neighborhood. I picked a fence post on the opposite end of the 30-yard lawn. I stared at the post, started the mower, and walked straight at the post. I never blinked, never checked the ground to see if there were holes, I simply fixed my eyes on a target and went straight to it. My natural desire was to look down or to look back to make sure I was going straight, but I resisted that temptation. 

This yard always grew faster than the homeowner’s paycheck. The grass always grew taller than it should have been. When I got to the other side of the yard, I turned to see the status of my first line and was amazed. I was looking at a swath of grass that created a perfect 4-inch gulf in the unkempt lawn. And that swath was straight, laser beam straight! I turned and put the left side wheels on the edge of the swath and headed back the other direction. One hour later, as I was putting the mower in the back of my 1993 Chevy truck, a man stopped beside me and gawked in amazement at the perfect straight-line pattern. 

The man only said one word: “how?” I looked him in the eye and said you have to keep your eyes on Jesus! After a smile and shake of his head, he drove off. 

This was the start of a tradition that my family makes fun of me about to this day. After I cut a yard, the next time the family is going somewhere in our minivan, we drive by the yard and my wife and kids are required to give a heartfelt “ooooooh, awwwwww, wow…”

I started a new pattern of cutting that day. Each time I go to cut The Red Barn pastures, I alternate the direction that I cut. It is actually healthy for the grass to be cut from a different direction each time. The blade of the grass will start to lay down in the direction of the cut if cut in the same direction every time. 

Spiritual Applications: 

Our tendency as humans is to “lean on our own understanding.” It is easy to start taking back control of the reins and try harder to do right. Looking around at our circumstances and looking back to see where we have been will not help you get where you should be going. The best way to stay on a direct road to God is to fix your eyes on Jesus and walk every step with Him as your beacon. 

If this happens, and your life starts to look great, someone will stop and ask, “how?” Our job is to be able to point them to the target of our path. Then they can join us in the journey straight to God. This draw toward the beauty of your life is what a dear realtor friend calls, “curb appeal.”

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What It Means to Be a Red Barn Horse by Alexis Braswell

Thank you, Alexis Braswell, for this beautiful tribute to Jessie.

If you know me, you know that it was no secret that Jessie was my favorite Red Barn Horse. In fact, Jessie was one of my favorite horses ever – and I’ve been around a lot of horses over the last 30 years. As cliché as it might sound, she was special.

Jessie was the first horse that I picked for The Red Barn as the leader of the Horse Team. I had taught other horses to be therapy horses, but I was either working under or alongside someone, or was working with one of my personal horses who had joined The Red Barn. There was a lot riding on this horse for me personally. Jessie taught me more about prepping and training Red Barn horses than any other horse I’ve ever worked, including my own. She was brilliant. She held me accountable and she made me think – a lot. She challenged me. She made me smile. She made me better. 

Jessie taught me the importance of making a plan. More specifically, Jessie taught, and frequently reminded me, that the horse training plan is, and always should be, based on the needs of the horse. People frequently ask what made me love Jessie so much. I’ve thought about that a lot and while I can’t define it 100%, I think I can get pretty close. 

Jessie’s work ethic was unparalleled. No matter how hot it was or how hard she had worked the day before, her ears were always up. She would’ve happily taught 10 lessons in a row if we’d let her. To this day, I have not met a horse with a better work ethic. 

Jessie changed lives and I loved that every time I had the privilege of working with her, I got to watch her make someone’s day better. If you were lucky enough to experience Jessie cuddling, then you know that I am talking about.

 I think my favorite Jessie connection was the one that she had with my student Reid. Reid rode Jessie for the first time in November 2015. The lesson note from that day reads: “Reid’s best lesson ever”. They hit it off from the beginning. Reid rode Jessie until she got sick in early 2019. At the time Reid began riding Jessie, his anxiety was high. The barn needed to be his safe place. He requested to just spend time relaxing with Jessie. For almost a year, with the approval of his parents, Reid’s lessons consisted of him lying on Jessie’s back and telling her funny stories. You could literally see the tension leave his body as soon as he was with her. 

After about a year, Reid told me one day he was ready to start steering again. He never looked back. Reid went from lying on Jessie bareback to riding independently at the posting trot. In his last lesson on Jessie during February 2019, Reid was learning to change his diagonal at the posting trot. Jessie gave him confidence that I could never have given him as an instructor. He trusted her and she trusted him. They were the epitome of a team. 

A common misconception of autism is that those on the spectrum lack empathy and the ability to connect with others. Reid loved and cared for Jessie. He worried about her when she got sick. Even when he could no longer ride Jessie, he would ask to take time to “just visit and love on her a little.” 

When it became apparent that Jessie would need to be put down, my heart broke. Not just for me, but for Reid and all the other people who loved her. We called to let Reid’s mom know and she brought Reid out to say goodbye. What I thought would be an incredibly gut-wrenching experience turned out to be one of my most memorable experiences from my time at The Red Barn. 

Reid’s love for Jessie was so apparent. He hugged her and thanked her and led her while she ate some grass. After about an hour, he left. Then he turned around and said he wanted to pray for Jessie. He prayed the most heartfelt prayer that I’ve ever heard in my life. Thankfully, someone recorded it. 

Here is a transcription of Reid’s prayer for Jessie: “Dear Lord, thank you for the time Jessie got to live down here on Earth. Help her to be brave when she goes to Heaven. Lord just keep us safe. Help us to help her have a good life in Heaven. Lord, we love you very much. Help everybody be happy and we love you very much Lord and we pray for you in Jesus’ name. Amen.”

That prayer brought comfort to all of us that day on a level we didn’t know was possible. Jessie connected to Reid on a level that can’t be explained other than by God. What makes Jessie even more incredible is that there are countless other stories out there of her doing the same thing for so many others. She really was special.

Unfortunately, cancer took Jessie from us too soon. I would have loved more time to learn from her, but I am eternally grateful for the 4 years I had with Jessie. She made every day at work better. She constantly reminded me why we do what we do and how life-changing a bond with a horse can be. There is not a day that goes by at the barn where I don’t use something Jessie taught me. Every program should be so lucky as to have a Jessie at least once. 

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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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Intern Insights: Sylvie

Sylvie “Sunshine” Daggett is a long-time volunteer at the Red Barn. This past Summer, she accepted a position as an intern and worked three days a week at the Barn. Sylvie helped with lessons and daily operations while receiving training in order to become a certified instructor through the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH). We appreciate all the hard work Sylvie puts in to helping the Barn, and are thrilled to announce that she recently accepted a full-time position on our staff! I decided to sit down with her so she could share some insight into her experience over the past few months. I hope you all enjoy this exclusive, behind-the-scenes look into the life of a Red Barn intern!

Connor: You’ve been volunteering at the Red Barn for a few years now, correct? How’d you originally hear about the Barn?

Sylvie: Shelley Jones (a former Red Barn instructor) came to my school, Evangel Christian School, for a school orientation and mentioned the Red Barn as a place to volunteer. I had been looking for a place to serve and like horses so it sounded cool to me.

ConnorWhat drew you towards pursuing an internship at the Barn?

Sylvie: Having the opportunity to work more with so many of our awesome students, like Hailey Grace.

Connor: In what ways has your experience as an intern differed from your experience as a volunteer?

Sylvie: You get to see the background, like all that behind the scenes jazz, at the Barn more as an intern and how much work goes into everything. As a volunteer, you’re more guided from lesson to lesson.

Connor: What advice do you have for anyone interested in becoming an intern?

Sylvie: Just to get ready to fall in love with the hardest job that gives back the mostest.

Connor: Do you plan on going into the field of therapeutic horseback riding or do you have another career path in mind?

Sylvie: Yep to the first part! I’m currently working on becoming a PATH-certified instructor.

Connor: Do you have horses of your own? How long have you been riding?

Sylvie: I’ve been riding consistently since I was 13 and I have two horses, Chica and Molly.

Connor: What’s your favorite color?

Sylvie: Uhhhh… Peach, it’s a happy color! Or maybe grey.

Connor: Anything else you’d like to add? Any shout-outs?

Sylvie: Yeah, I’d like to give a big shout-out to my boy, Billy the goat.

-Connor