We asked our longest-attending student Reid Pickett, who has been riding at the Red Barn since 2011, to explain what the barn means to him in his own words. His mother, Gretchen, interviewed him.
Gretchen: “What have you learned at The Red Barn?”
Reid: “Well I have learned trotting, but also how to use my words to instruct the horses.”
Gretchen: “What does The Red Barn do?”
Reid: “They teach lessons… but it’s really a place for kids to have fun.”
Gretchen: “Do you use what Miss Alexis has taught you at home?”
Reid: “I’ve learned how to take care of things like grooming. And I’ve learned to ask about unfamiliar situations like how it feels to ride a different horse.”
Gretchen: “What does Miss Alexis mean to you?”
Reid: “Well, she’s my person and she’s made me better.”
Gretchen: “Tell me about the horses.”
Reid: “They have frogs on their feet! And it’s cool that you can ride on them.”
Gretchen: “How do you feel when you go to the barn?”
Reid: “Happy and safe.”
Gretchen: “One thing that is neat about where Reid is in his Red Barn journey is that he’s very interested in the history of the barn/property. He’s gotten some information from Miss Alexis and he likes to tell people about what it was before the lower barn was built and how people used to live in the Red House. He’s also come home and researched a bit on his own, such as finding old pictures of the property online. Very cool!”
On a sunny day in Leeds, a group of veterans gather around the glistening pond where the property begins. They are here to participate in our Take the Reins program, which invites veterans and their families to come out for various activities at the barn. They congregate together today to do activities with the horses and to learn how to relax and cope with their PTSD. This program they are participating in is called “Take the Reins,” a metaphor for the veterans learning how to take the reins of life after war.
The group walks from the pond to the upper barn. Two horses stand in the cross-ties while the veterans gather around to learn about their first activity – painting the horses. They can paint anything they want on the horses, whether the strokes have meaning or not. The goal is to allow them the artistic canvas while also reaping the benefits of interacting with the horse. As they begin, a strong, blonde-haired woman named Shelley paints on Black Flight with her neighbor, best friend, and fellow vet Pat. As Shelley paints, her markings come alive with colors and images that resemble memories:
Here, near the front, I’ve painted the heart and stripes to show my love for my country. Those years of service will stay with me. On the horse’s rump, I’ve painted the United States Navy anchor with some pink, because I love pink and it should be more widely accepted in the military. On her front leg, I’ve painted vines and leaves growing up and wrapping around to show that my roots will always be on United States soil, no matter where I am. The yellow line painted on the horse’s spine is the yellow line of fear. Bravery is overcoming that fear.
The sense of relief and relaxation as she talks about her artwork on Black Flight is tangible. Black Flight exudes equal relaxation as she drops her head and breathes deeper with every brush stroke. Shiloh stands across from Black Flight. Shiloh is smaller than Black Flight, allowing a more comfortable option for those who are intimidated by larger horses. There are always options at The Red Barn, which finds people’s strengths and places them in positions that promote the opportunity to shine.
After finishing their exercises at the upper barn, they head back down to the pond where the original “Red Barn” building stands. This allows time for the veterans to reflect in a more open, natural space. As the geese float on the pond and the surrounding birds chirp, the group gathers around the amphitheater in between the Red Barn and the pond. The group breathes together and interacts with their surroundings. The veterans then engage in more art, writing, and acting sessions.
During one of the writing sessions, Shelley’s friend Pat reads what she would tell her twenty-year-old self. Pat’s voice quivers as she reads aloud:
I was scared for the future, so I would have wanted to give my twenty-year-old self encouragement. I would tell her to trust in the Lord to show her the way, and to not fear the war. Recently, I have been attending grief counseling because my husband died in August. I’m giving my troubles and releasing my worries during these hours in counseling. Today has helped me so much. My parting words to my twenty-year-old self would be that you are going to go through hard times, but to be encouraged because God will help you and take you through them.
Pat’s powerful testimony shows how The Red Barn creates a space where participants can finally let go of their struggles. The horses’ calming attitudes have a way of tearing down emotional walls and helping create a sense of release. The atmosphere at The Red Barn naturally allows for people to not feel judged or pressured. The participants are encouraged and allowed to feel free of their burdens, even if just for a moment. Those that arrive on the property are welcomed back with open arms. This is their place to belong.
One warm sunny Monday morning my mom and I went to The Red Barn. We did chores like dusting and sweeping. Then, I rode on a horse named Black Flight. The beautiful horse and I trotted and strutted on a trail ride. Lastly, I take the saddle, bridle, squared pad, and the box that has a curry comb, hard brush, soft brush, hairbrush, and hoof pick. After I put the tack up, I hugged Black Flight two times. The Red Barn stands as my favorite place, full of beautiful animals.
I enjoy the different textures of all the animals at the barn. A glamorous small female cat with soft fur touched and talked to me when she trotted toward the goats’ hut. She jumped the high fence so she could play with all the striking fluffy goats and mess with their plain wet food. Then she walked up to the very lovely furry bunnies. The black, brown, and white bunnies have a cute massive play area. The black one is my favorite one because she has a clever and witty way of life. The different textures are very unique to me.
I enjoy the different appearances of the animals at The Red Barn. After the cat met the bunnies, she saw the birds fly by and a small bat trapped in the barn. The next day the bat flew back home in the dark creepy caves around mountains. When the bat flew away, a big group of horses galloped free until they were thirsty.
I enjoy some of the smells from the broad barn. The elegant horses went back to The Red Barn to eat their awful stinky food. The horses ate hay and oats. The bunnies had a fancy crisp carrot cake and sweet carrot pie. And the goats had fresh hay and scrawny tree limbs. We had a lot of sweet homemade cookies to eat, and they were crunchy.
The Red Barn has grand sounds that I like. The air sounded peaceful with the birds singing a humorous song and some of them are gifted songs. The party’s in the merry barn where you can hear the brilliant horses neighing at a lot of people. The Christmas party and Bluegrass & Burgers are two of the events. In the afternoon you will hear a long high-pitched shrill chirping from a lot of birds.
My favorite place stands as The Red Barn. I am happy when I am with all the animals. When I ride it feels peaceful because I am alone on the horse. The barn has a lot of fun activities to do which makes me want to go back often.
“It means an affordable activity for my sweet boy. An activity that expands Owen’s world and helps his development. It means a safe place that I can take Owen where he is understood, loved and accepted. It means help and healing. It means my boy is going to get some horse lovin’. Thank you, Red Barn!” – Owen’s mom, Jennifer Ward
Owen has always been a joy to those who know him. He eagerly tries his hardest to please anyone and everyone that he can. However, he has struggled with change in the past. And while Owen is well-behaved, his social development lagged slightly behind his peers. He would display behaviors such as intentionally wearing his shoes on the wrong feet. It was not a defiant act, but instead for sensory stimulus; when the shoes were worn incorrectly, they applied additional pressure that helps those with Autism Spectrum Disorder feel more regulated and secure.
Owen has taken part in several different therapies to help with such challenges. However, therapy is expensive, and they didn’t provide Owen the assistance he needed beyond the clinical office setting. In the waiting room for one of these therapies, Owen’s mother found an alternative solution: The Red Barn.
After a bit of research, Owen’s mother determined The Red Barn was the ideal place for Owen to grow and to feel secure. She desperately wanted her son to feel the joy of bonding with animals and new people, and she knew this would open new feelings in Owen’s heart. Unfortunately, Owen’s family was already paying so much for other therapies that they could only afford for him to come to The Red Barn on a scholarship. It took more than two years on the waitlist, but eventually a space in the riding program opened up for Owen.
Since he began riding in June 2019, Owen has made incredible progress in many different ways. His core muscles have gotten much stronger, which improves his posture, coordination, and balance. Owen’s mom also noticed that her son no longer puts his shoes on the wrong feet. She mentioned this change in behavior to one of Owen’s therapists, and he responded that the change is likely due to Owen’s sensory input needs being met through riding and other activities at the barn.
Owen has also learned how to better accept change in his life from his time at the barn. During his first two riding terms, Owen exclusively rode Zeus and was not receptive to riding other horses. However, a new horse named Buzz finished his trial period training and was ready to step into The Red Barn’s riding program by January 2020. Sylvie, Owen’s instructor, determined that Buzz’s movement would be more beneficial both for developing Owen’s core muscles, and in being more flexible with the “go with the flow” nature of Owen’s lessons.
Owen quickly bonded with Buzz, and the transition went so smoothly that it surprised even his mom. Owen demonstrated his deep appreciation of his new friend by intentionally wearing Buzz Lightyear shirts to the barn. However, Owen would pointedly ignore Zeus whenever he walked past his pasture. His mom mentioned that Owen had trouble accepting when people he had been close to moved away or were unable to be around as frequently. He would ignore these friends and family members after they had been absent, which often strained those relationships. Sylvie and Owen’s mom discussed his detachment from Zeus, and brainstormed ways to help rebuild the relationship. They wanted Owen to understand that though he wasn’t currently riding Zeus, the horse with whom he first bonded was still his friend.
To help Owen reach this realization, Sylvie and Owen’s team of volunteers would make a big show of waving and speaking to Zeus with a fond, “Hello!” whenever they walked by him. They would also make sure to give two peppermint treats to horses at the end of Owen’s lesson. One went to Buzz of course, and for the first couple of weeks the other went to Buzz’s best equine friend, Woody. Sylvie explained that although Buzz and Woody weren’t currently spending time together, that Buzz would be happy knowing his best buddy was also getting a treat.
After those initial weeks, Sylvie started allowing Owen to choose who would get the other peppermint. He eventually chose to give Zeus the treat on two occasions. He also started waving with the rest of his team whenever they passed Zeus’s pasture, illustrating a regard for his former riding companion.
Owen’s mom is overjoyed with the progress her son is making. Yet she is happiest that Owen has a place where he can be himself and connect with animals and people, and that his instructors are always willing to listen to his needs and adjust to what best suits him. His mom says visiting the barn is “the favorite part of my week, driving to a place where people love my kid and it’s just peaceful. You couldn’t be in a more healing environment.”
Others may see his physical and behavioral differences, but we see how far Jackson has come because of The Red Barn. Jackson was born with Cerebral Palsy after he suffered a brain hemorrhage and stroke during his birth. Doctors said he would never walk or talk. Later, he was also diagnosed with Autism and struggled with grief after losing his mother at age 5. Therapy at The Red Barn has helped him with all of that. His motor skills, core strength, balance, and communication skills have all improved. – Jackson’s adoptive mom, Leah
He arrives at the barn with a smile on his face. He runs to the board to see who Miss Sylvie has him riding that day. His name is Jackson and he has a passion for filming.
Fortunately, The Red Barn is able to incorporate his love of filming into his lessons. The barn’s videographer will often stand in the middle of the arena filming as Jackson completes each task. He asks to view the video after every task, but his instructor tells him that he must wait to see the video until the end. It serves as motivation to complete each task.
Jackson works hard doing everything the instructors and volunteers ask him to do. His overall health has improved, but he has also improved as a rider. Jackson has learned how to retrieve stuffed animals during riding games, as well as how to maintain concentration while riding. His increase in stamina shows, as well, as he trots around the arena. When he finishes each lesson, he has a huge smile on his face as he finally gets to watch the videos from his lesson.
In addition, The Red Barn has helped Jackson emotionally. When one of the horses, Red Flight, passed away, Jackson learned a new way to deal with grief. The instructors and volunteers were able to teach him that even though Red Flight was gone, we are able live on with the sweet memories we have of him. This was a pivotal moment for Jackson, as he could relate it to his mother’s death.
The best part about Jackson’s time at The Red Barn is that he has no idea that it is therapeutic! During sessions, he exerts all his efforts into doing his best which he usually doesn’t do for other therapy sessions. The results evident to his parents are cause for great joy.
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.
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!”
On January 10th, 2009, we came home from the baby shower for my son. Someone had left a loaded gun in their vehicle. When they tried to remove it, it dry fired. It went through the seat and the door when my daughter Hailey Grace was walking around the side of the car. She was hit on impact with shrapnel from the bullet. The doctors told us she wouldn’t live through the night. That day is now known as ‘Hailey Grace Day’ because she did. She lived.
Hailey Grace’s mom, Christy
In the blink of an eye, Christy Leslie went from having a typical child to having one who is legally blind, cognitively impaired, and suffering from PTSD. After the accident, Hailey Grace was forced to re-learn everyday activities most people take for granted; she spent months in the hospital learning how to walk, talk, and eat. She also struggled to find adequate therapeutic opportunities. Hailey Grace graduated from her occupational therapy program because there was “nothing more they could do” for her physical and speech impairments. The Red Barn not only offers physical benefits, but also a sense of comfort and hope that traditional therapies cannot.
She LIVED, and Now She Rides
Being at The Red Barn has given Hailey Grace confidence and autonomy, on top of the physical benefits. Hailey Grace’s instructor pushes her to do things because she knows she is capable. She makes her clip on the reins and buckle the saddle’s girth underneath the horse, which strengthens Hailey Grace’s right-sided weakness. She has also learned the meaning of cause-and-effect; if she doesn’t do what she’s supposed to do, then she’s not going to get to do what she wants to do: ride horses.
Hailey Grace loves The Red Barn so much that she even created a braille calendar so that she can count down the days until her next riding lesson, which are marked on the calendar with a sticker.
The Leslie family now celebrates the anniversary of Hailey Grace’s accident with cupcakes and happiness. They don’t want the memory to haunt Hailey Grace and tear her down, but rather to empower her. They want Hailey Grace to look back on the day and remember it as “the day God decided that I was going to live and I was going to prove to everybody that I could do anything.” The Red Barn has helped Hailey Grace find the ability, both physically and emotionally, to prove that.
James laid across the hammock in front of the white barn, relaxing as his instructor, Barratt, gently rocked it back and forth. His sister, Lily, returned from a visit to see the goats and bunnies on the lower half of the property. She was hand-in-hand with her instructor, Alexis, who bent down to listen as Lily whispered something into her ear. Both children were giggling wildly, without any apparent care in the world.
For years, James and Lily’s mom questioned whether this day would ever come. Repeated traumas threatened to steal their childhood innocence and no amount of traditional therapy seemed able to repair it. The two experienced a wide range of after effects, from separation anxiety to generalized anger, which only seemed to worsen with time. A family friend recommended The Red Barn.
A Safe Place to Belong and Learn
Lily, an avid animal lover, was instantly hooked. She found that she was able to bring her love of stuffed animals to life while simultaneously gaining confidence and independence. At the barn, Alexis encouraged Lily to make her own decisions, whether that meant choosing her horse for the week or choosing which direction she wished to ride. The Red Barn provided Lily a safe place to belong and be herself, which translated to other areas of her life. Though still shy, she no longer dreads going to school. She learned to actually enjoy it.
James was slower to attach to the barn. Unlike Lily, he was initially afraid of the horses; to a boy of barely five, they were larger than life. That all changed when he started taking weekly lessons. He began by establishing a close bond with Barratt over their mutual love of nature. James excitedly examined rock after rock by her side, as she shared a constant stream of information which he soaked in like a sponge. As he grew to love and trust Barratt, he also grew to trust the horses. James had confidence that Barratt would never place him in harm’s way. After weeks of ground lessons, he finally agreed to ride. He then began riding weekly, with each session being just a little longer than the last one. At the barn, he got to quench his constant thirst for knowledge while regulating his emotions through riding and playing.
Therapeutic Benefits of Riding are Undeniable
Neither James nor Lily was comfortable establishing boundaries of their respective comfort zones, and they each had to learn the value of the word “no.” Outside of home, Lily would merely shut down, while James was more likely to act out. Each is now willing to speak up when asked to do something they don’t feel comfortable doing. They learned to be assertive.
Mom largely attributed their success to the relationship between instructor and child; without the support and trust of their instructors, neither James nor Lily would have ever been willing to get on a horse. She believed the therapeutic benefits of riding, however, are undeniable.
I have heard that horses help with kids who have been through trauma. I have noticed in our own involvement in lessons that it has given my children confidence. They work with an animal that is so much bigger than them. The instructors empower them and help them realize they can do anything they put their mind to. Riding the horses gives them a sense of control because they think they are the ones steering the horse, even though the horse is under control of the horse handlers. Everything about the lessons help them not only in their barn work, but also at home. –James and Lily’s Mom
These benefits only seemed to increase over time, as each child spent more and more time on horseback. Although the physical benefits of horseback riding were clear, James and Lily illustrated the emotional benefits, as well.
Something to Look Forward To
As they headed out the barn’s gates, James and Lily reluctantly waved goodbye to Barratt, Alexis, and all of the horses. Until they returned, they wouldn’t stop thinking about what the next visit would hold. James wondered which rocks and plants Barratt would show him under the microscope. Lily looked forward to wrapping her arms around Mazie, her favorite horse of the week. Mom slept a little easier, knowing her kids had found a home-away-from-home.
Even before Gabriel had an official diagnosis, we were seeing signs of developmental delay. He was late to walk, struggled with some fine motor skills, and was very delayed with his speech. For the first two or three years of his life, every verbal communication was monosyllabic. He would not answer questions with “yes” and”no.” He did not really respond to directions. In spite of our involvement with early intervention and his pediatrician, we felt like there was something more we could do. In speaking with other parents, I know this is a common sentiment. This was frustrating, because we weren’t certain where to look outside the medical community.
We passed a horse riding place every day on the way to school and Gabriel began pointing out horses. In an effort to expand his team of therapists, we started working with Puzzle Piece as a supplement to his services. Renee from Puzzle Piece noticed Gabriel’s fascination with horses, and was delighted when we asked about equestrian therapy. We immediately found one program, but we were told the wait list was years. YEARS!
Putting Two Words Together
When The Red Barn was really starting to put roots down, Renee mentioned she had worked with Joy in the past, and suggested we call her to inquire about availability. From there, everything else fell into place like magic. Gabriel was able to start riding soon thereafter; he had just turned 4 years old. Both he and our family fell in love with the staff, the barn and most important: the horses.
What was an interest became a passion. If there was a horse within 1,000 feet, Gabriel would spot it and point it out! I remember one time he proclaimed, “HORSE!” and I told him, “no buddy… I don’t think that is a horse,” thinking there was no way he could make that determination from so far away. We kept driving, and as we closed in on the location I gasped. “Gabriel – that IS a horse! How did you know from so far away?” The answer was obvious. “Horse. Barn.” I laughed. He laughed.
He loves it here. It is impossible to come up with just one story to share because there are so many. Gabriel’s lessons are filled with smiles and laughter. There have been so many wonderful volunteers and staff members that have connected with him and helped him. The Red Barn is the first place he put two words together when he one day told a horse to “walk on.”There were tears of joy and gleeful clapping! He has ridden backwards, trotted through most of his lesson – thank you handlers and side walkers for those – and even ridden a miniature pony during our time here.
He looks forward to it every week and knows when I get him from school on riding day that we are heading here. He has gone from finally putting two words together to helping direct his lessons. It is amazing the growth he shows every time he comes.
What Has Changed
Riding helped Gabriel develop more core strength, has helped with following directions and discipline, and believe it or not, continues to aid him with his verbal development. Gabriel grew with The Red Barn.
Now, in addition to “horse,” “walk on,” “let’s trot!” and other commands, Gabriel can also tell you if he wants to go ride in the barn or do the pirate trail. He can tell you what horse both he and Arya rode that day. He can tell you he wants “chicken and fries” or “‘roni pizza.” Decision making, following directions, vocabulary, the strength to jump up and down… a lot of kids take these things for granted. At The Red Barn, every new accomplishment makes our hearts soar, and when I think back on everything we’ve worked on in 8 years with Gabriel, I genuinely believe that we are far, far better off with Gabriel having a favorite place to be, around his favorite people with his favorite animals.
Now Arya Rides Too!
His sister, Arya, and I used to sit on the sides at every lesson and play with the trucks or jump in the puddles after it rained or walk around and say hello to the horses in their stalls. One day, she asked Ms. Joy when she would be allowed to ride too and now, luckily, she rides as well. She loves coming here. She loves learning and is so proud of what she accomplishes every time.
We have grown with the barn over the years, from being able to get into lessons immediately to there being a wait list and triple the staff. All of the people we have encountered have met the diverse needs of both of our children, as those have continually changed. They facilitate shifts with laughter, joy, and fun, and it is amazing to watch and be part of. We are lucky to be part of The Red Barn community and I am so glad they are part of my children’s lives.
By the time Kristina was three years old, she had been deserted by both parents and had lost her closest friend. She was adopted by her grandmother, Carol. Carol tried her hardest to provide Kristina with the type of love and support she needed. Kristina, however, still struggled to accept the losses in her life. She stopped playing with other children and would instead watch them from afar. She was soon diagnosed with clinical depression.
Kristina began talk and play therapy where she used dolls to express her feelings. After nearly a full year, she was able to say, “I’m mad at my mom.” This therapy alone was not enough to help her, though. She continued to struggle with empathy, self-confidence, and overcoming the feelings of inadequacy she felt from being abandoned. No matter how hard Carol tried to convince Kristina that it was her mom’s own problems that caused her to leave, Kristina continued to blame herself.
Carol was familiar with another family who had been helped by The Red Barn in a time of tragedy and loss. Their experience prompted Carol to enroll Kristina in weekly riding lessons. Carol watched as, over time, Kristina developed self-esteem and independence. The horses and peers at the barn have taught her such empathy that Kristina says she plans to give back to The Red Barn by volunteering when she is old enough to do so.
Kristina has finally found a place where she is accepted and loved. She knows that no matter how hard life might be at times, she will always find happiness and solace at The Red Barn. It has helped Kristina restore her faith in “family.”