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Building Strong Connections

Aiden’s Story

Getting his hands warm

Because our donors gave, they provided Aiden, a 6-year-old child with Cerebral Palsy, epilepsy, and who is non-verbal, an opportunity to ride at the barn and participate in activities at the barn. Ziggy helped to loosen and stretch Aiden’s tight muscles so he could gain better control over them. And because of the opportunity to ride on Ziggy, Aiden is more verbal after lessons and overall happier.

“The Red Barn provides so much more than riding lessons for kids. It provides them a safe place to explore their capabilities, a place for good socialization, and a place to be happy. All of Aiden’s doctor appointments can weigh on him, and for The Red Barn to be able to provide a place that never seems like a chore is an absolute blessing.” – Aiden’s Mom

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“He Learned He Is Capable of More”

Generous donations helped fund the Job Skills program which teaches students life-changing skills!

Generous gifts from our donors provided Peter with essential life-changing skills to help him in future jobs. When students like Peter start in the Job Skills class, they must be willing to learn, participate in class activities, and work with moderate supervision. These are just some of the requirements for this hands-on educational class. During class, students learn time management, money management, communication skills, building relationships, learn how to supervise others, and materials management. And after learning these essential skills are able to do tasks at the barn to enhance their hands-on experience.

“The class required him to step up and work with his peers and put him in real-world situations where compromise was required to meet a goal while being a space safe for him to fail and learn from the experience. He has learned he is capable of more than he thought, and he realized while he enjoys some things as a hobby, they are a lot of work when you have to maintain them!” – Peter’s Mom

Funding from our donors is instrumental in providing this class to students. So many students coming to the barn have the ability and desire to learn these essential skills but are unable to afford the class. Compassionate gifts open the door to many possibilities for students and their families. Peter and other students like him have the tools needed to create a brighter future for themselves thanks to our donors!

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A Blooming Friendship- Thanks to Our Donors!

The first time coming to the barn is one of the most exciting, nervous, and happiest times a child can experience. And that was what Lindsey experienced when she went to the barn.

A couple of years ago, Lindsey met Tusker, a 23-year-old retired show horse. For those of you who do not know Tusker’s history, he is one of the most decorated show horses to work at the barn. He is even on YouTube! Tusker is playful, can teach any student no matter the skill level, and is very attentive to his student’s needs. In addition, he is so intuitive that he can adapt to a student’s needs. That is pretty incredible!

And that was precisely the kind of interaction Lindsey needed when she started working with Tusker. Since her first day at the barn, Lindsey was able to build a friendship with the horses, other students, barn staff, and volunteers. Because our donors gave so generously to the barn, Lindsey received a scholarship to learn from and be challenged by Tusker. Their gift to the barn also meant we could provide the best care possible for Tusker. Their gift has been instrumental in providing Tusker, and other horses like him, with nutritional feed and ensuring they received extraordinary care. Thanks to our amazing donors, Tusker is happy, healthy, and well-fed! And students like Lindsey have a place where they can build strong relationships and learn from the friendliest horses! Thank you, donors!


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Horse Show Season

Years in the Making

Have you ever been in a horse show? I have not, but after hearing about our students’ experiences over the past couple of months, I feel like I have missed out! 

The Red Barn staff is full of talented riders who have wanted to give our students that horse show experience for years. Seriously, taking students to horse shows has been on the strategic plan for a LONG time. Well, the stars have aligned, and students have been showing and having an absolutely wonderful time doing it, just like we knew they would!

They Took the Risk

A total of eight students have shown in two shows this season- the Alabama Charity Championship Horse Show and the Alabama Classic Horse Show. These kids worked hard, mastered some difficult skills, got dressed up all fancy, and took a risk competing while knowing that they might not win anything at all. While you can see that some of our students did win ribbons, they all grew in confidence, made friendships, bonded with the horses, and grew a little more in their belief that they can do what any other kid can do.

Our students aren’t the only ones who shined either! The Red Barn has the best horses in the world, and several of our amazing horses showed with our students. They knew exactly what each student needed and when they needed it. They worked hard for their kids and just had the best time. 

Made of Steel

Just LOOK AT THESE FACES! Our students shined bright at both shows. Their past doesn’t define them. Their abilities don’t define them. Their struggles don’t define them! Thanks to our generous donors, these kids went to a horse show and proved to themselves that they belong and are strong.  We already knew they were made of steel!

How did these kids prepare to go to these shows? I’m glad you asked! Most instructors at The Red Barn don’t just teach others how to ride horses. They ride, too.

Alexis Braswell has numerous championships and was an invaluable source of information for the parents and kids. In 2010 and 2011, Alexis and her old horse, Charm, were World Reserve Champions in their division. In 2012, she and Chili were Reserve World Champions in their division. She won world championship titles while riding friends’ horses in 2016 and 2017. Just this season, Alexis and Chili have been undefeated in their division! They won all of their 5 gaited country pleasure classes at Pro-Am Charity Horse Show, MidSouth Spring Premiere Horse Show, Alabama Classic Horse Show, and Alabama Charity Championship Horse Show.  Alexis and her other horse, Mac, took 2nd place at the MidSouth Spring Premiere and Alabama Classic.

Mary Beth Vaughn has shown in Birmingham Dressage and Combined Training for three years. She also now shows her personal horse, Havana, at the Full Circle Horse Park Schooling Shows. They have won some 2′ and some 2’3″ show jumping classes and placed third in their first Dressage test in intro A.  Mary Beth and Havana joined in on the fun at the Alabama Charity Championship Horse Show in Decatur, placing 4th in the open walk trot and 5th in the walk-trot championship. She also showed our very own Luna in Decatur last year, placing 1st in the walk-trot horsemanship and 3rd in the equitation academy class. She also showed our own Dolly in the Alabama Classic Horse Show in Rainsville and placed 2nd in the open walk trot canter and walk trot canter championship. Last October, she showed a friend’s horse and placed 2nd out of 11 in the open hunter pleasure championship class. 

Ivey Wise rode in the Alabama Classic Horse Show and placed 1st place in showmanship walk trot canter, 1st place in equitation walk trot canter, and 1st place in the walk trot canter championship. She also showed at the Alabama Charity Championship and placed 5th in showmanship walk trot canter, 4th in equitation walk trot canter, and 5th in the walk trot canter championship.

Jordan Belzer showed in the 2019 National Georgia Draft Horse Show. She showed a 6 month old filly named Athena and a 4 month old colt named Hector. Jordan says that entering and doing well at a horse show is the most rewarding experience!

most rewarding experience!

As you can see, our instructors are good at what they do. They love what they do so much that they ride and show their own horses on nights and weekends when they’re not at the barn! With that level of talent and dedication among our staff coupled with our well-trained horses and hard-working students, this is sure to be just the first of many successful show seasons for The Red Barn. 


Here’s to many more horse shows to come. Enjoy these super cute pictures!


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Blake’s Story

“We are so thankful for The Red Barn. Blake works so well with y’all and everyone at the barn works well with him. We love that you have the Saturdays where he can show family what he has learned. He won a first-place award in the fall. Blake was so humble when he said ‘It wasn’t about winning, it’s about having fun.’” – Blake’s grandmother, Margarita Roe 

Blake lost his father at 6 years old. He was then adopted by his grandparents, who quickly saw the overwhelming grief was affecting Blake at a very deep level. A typically polite, gentle, and patient boy, he withdrew within himself and began needing frequent redirection in school. To help him overcome and properly express his grief, Blake’s grandmother Margarita began searching for help. That was when a family friend mentioned The Red Barn.

Margarita was instantly intrigued. Blake’s late father owned a horse, which Blake often rode as a young child. Margarita hoped the barn could be a place that could not only help Blake to heal from his grief, but also allow him to better remember his dad and the happiness they shared in outdoor activities such as fishing and riding horses. 

Blake began riding at The Red Barn in 2017, and in his own words calls it, “my happy place.” Margarita also grew up horseback riding but has been amazed at how much love and care the barn exhibits in teaching its students and caring for its horses. She says The Red Barn is like a big family, and that she also feels at peace when here.








Not only is the barn a place where Blake has found peace and happiness, it has also fostered personal growth. Having ridden here for more than two years, Blake is one of our more experienced riders and has graduated beyond the need for sidewalker assistance. He’s also ridden a number of different horses at the barn. One of the moments that best reflects Blake’s growth was clear when he began riding Luna. 

Luna was new to the program at the time, so she wasn’t as accustomed to the different patterns or routines as Blake’s previous horses. Blake was also growing more independent and needed a horse that would challenge him to properly communicate. It was a match made in heaven, though it certainly didn’t come without its challenges. Early on, Blake struggled to steer Luna in a pattern, particularly when guiding her in circles around a barrel. Despite the difficulties, he didn’t get frustrated, nor did he ever blame her for the miscommunication. Blake noted to his instructor Sylvie, “Steering Luna is a lot like talking to a new friend.” With practice and perseverance, Blake and Luna broke through and were able to properly understand one another, and the two are now great friends. 

The Red Barn has enabled Blake to grow in ways outside of riding, too. Blake expresses his appreciation through acts of service and prefers to clean his horse’s stall or refill their water bucket while his volunteers get his horse groomed and tacked. His assistance with chores at the barn has carried over to his home life. Margarita says Blake is more mindful of helping around the house and is more organized in all aspects of his life. 

Perhaps the moment that best reflects Blake’s growth and healing from his time at The Red Barn came during the 2019 Fun Show. Blake felt extremely nervous on the day of the show and even asked his instructor if he could pull his name from the show. Fortunately, his grandfather convinced him to push through his fear. Not only did Blake ride, but he won first place in his class. He was overjoyed and showed his blue ribbon to everyone. The sense of accomplishment was palpable. 

Though his father may no longer physically be with him, Blake understood he was watching, too. And the first words Blake said after receiving his ribbon? “My daddy would have been so proud of me.” 

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Donor Spotlight- In Their Words

You know how a box of Valentine’s Day chocolate is like a gamble? Like a gamble that you ALWAYS win because ALL of the chocolates are delicious? That’s kind of what our donors are like. We have lots of different flavors of donors, and they’re all precious to us!

Colleen and Jackson
“I support and volunteer at The Red Barn because I’ve seen first hand the incredible difference that horse therapy has made in the lives of these children. I have witnessed improvement in balance, core strength and social skills. Of equal importance is seeing their pride and confidence grow as they participate in the various programs. This truly is a place of faith, hope, and love. Keep up the great work!” Colleen Samples, Volunteer & Donor

There are event sponsors, monthly donors at all levels, end-of-year donors, Facebook donors, Facebook birthday fundraisers, memorial and honoraria donors, people who give up their birthday money to support the barn, family foundations that give monthly, family foundations that give a few times a year, small businesses that donate, large businesses that donate, people who give through their employer’s United Way campaign. The list could go on forever!

So what do all of these amazing supporters have in common? Our donors love the mission, love the people, and LOVE seeing how impactful their donations are in the lives of our students!

Naturally, we need to hear it “from the horse’s mouth.” We asked, “Why do you give?”

“I give because of the huge difference The Red Barn makes in the lives of their students and the families that benefit from the impact.”

“The needs that are met by the staff and resources at The Barn are too numerous for me to name, but the number of people who reap the benefits more than justify any donation.”

“If you visit and observe how many people invest in each child, each horse, and each lesson one would come away so impressed and grateful!  Everything is handled and planned for on such an organized and professional level. I am challenged to do something in response.”

“Their mission, the level of quality, the way they impact lives.”

“I know the people and ministry behind the Red Barn. I trust in their calling and know God is making a difference in families because of The Red Barn.”

“The great impact the programs have on families and the need to serve more families.

The heart of these donors is to make a difference, make an IMPACT in the lives of our students and their families. All of our staff, parents, volunteers, and students are so very grateful. Take a moment and watch some videos of life-changing transformations on our YouTube channel today! And if you find yourself inspired to give any amount, give here.

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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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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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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.

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Upcoming Thanksgiving Camps

Our parents are so thankful for our Thanksgiving week camps! We offer Art Camp, Pioneer Camp, and Nature Camp from November 20th – 22nd. These camps are open to children with or without disabilities and special circumstances. All Thanksgiving week camps are unmounted and for students in grades 2nd-8th. Each camp costs $50 per student. Don’t forget to pack a lunch! Further paperwork and evaluation may be required. Scholarships are available upon request.

Art Camp
Date: November 20th, 9:30-1:00

Create fun, Thanksgiving crafts that you can show to your family. We will be making Holiday wreaths, feather necklaces, and more!

Pioneer Camp
Date: November 21st, 9:30-1:00

Come learn how Pioneers survived cold winters. We will do creative, educational activities to learn more about the pioneering lifestyle, such as making cording and goats milk soap!

Nature Camp
Date: November 22nd, 9:30-1:00

Explore our beautiful property along the Little Cahaba and learn about the surrounding wildlife! Discover what our small animals do around the barn during the holiday season. We will be walking across lots of uneven terrains and down by the river so being able to move around safely and somewhat independently is important.

If you’d like to check availability or sign-up for any of the camps, please visit this page.