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Horses for Heroes: A Farm Expands Therapeutic Riding Program to Veterans

Horses for Heroes HeaderStory by Molly Hippensteel, NRCS; photos by NRCS and Heavenly Gaits Riding Program

“There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.”
-Winston Churchill 

With fond childhood memories of farm life and a gift for teaching, Monique Nellis began the Heavenly Gaits Therapeutic Riding Center in Knox, Pennsylvania - a non-profit therapeutic riding center devoted to making a difference in the lives of adults and children with special needs. 
Monique’s efforts now include veterans and their families through a new “Horses for Heroes” program. 

Horses for Heroes Photo 1

Monique Nellis checks on one of the horses at Heavenly Gaits Therapeutic Riding Center.

Solid Footing

Monique started Heavenly Gaits with a dream, a few donated horses and family land - land without solid fencing and a natural water source.

Initially, Monique created her own paddocks with temporary fencing, and moved the fencing and horses every few weeks for pasture and herd health. “My neighbors thought I was crazy!” she says.  She even drove water out to the pastures each day. 

At a manure management workshop, Monique learned about voluntary conservation programs for farmers, ranchers and private forest owners available through the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service. “They [NRCS] were a big help in giving me direction and what to do next," says Monique. 

With NRCS technical guidance and financial assistance, Monique installed nearly 12,000 feet of interior and exterior fencing with high visibility wires and a full water system, including a well and pipelines to each pasture. To build for the future, Monique raised money for the costs that weren’t covered through NRCS. 

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Monique incorporates land health into her daily farm and lesson management.

NRCS also assisted Monique with a grazing plan, which she has customized herself. “A grazing plan, from my perspective, is a formulated equation. It’s like the perfect lesson plan, but you have to make adaptations,” she says.

"It has been extremely rewarding to work with Monique and Heavenly Gaits to provide assistance in progressing her operation in a sustainable and environmentally beneficial capacity so that they can be successful," says Gregory Cain, a NRCS soil conservationist. 

"It is especially rewarding to know that the education that we have provided Monique has continued to be shared… she has taken the principles that we have taught her, adapted them to fit her operation, and shared those principles with others who may not be exposed to agriculture in day to day life. She has given conservation a prominent role in how she is managing the operation."

No Boundaries

In less than five years, Heavenly Gaits has grown from a few horses and three riders to over ten horses - including a mini horse - and 35 weekly riders, 60 riders per month for summer camps, and over 30 active volunteers.

The most recent addition to the farm is a horse with just one eye. “I don’t want people to see him as being limited or un-useful,” says Monique. 

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The herd at Heavenly Gaits includes a horse with one eye.

To include him in her outreach and service, she recently connected with the Venango County Association for the Blind and, through donations from the local Lion's Club, expects to provide horse rides and lessons for children with visual impairments.

“At Heavenly Gaits, we don’t judge people by limitations; we see possibilities,” says Monique. 

Monique now is adding the finishing touches to Zoe’s trail, a horse riding trail that memorializes the life of a 16-year-old rider that passed away last year. The trail is bordered with posts painted yellow for Zoe’s favorite color and purple for her mom’s favorite color.  It is lined with zoo animals that Zoe loved, each with a sensory or tactile component.

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A butterfly garden surrounds the trail.

“She loved to ride,” says Monique. “Her mom said she would sign every morning for her horse. Her mom couldn’t wait until Wednesdays when she could finally say; yes, you can go ride your horse now.”

Monique's guidance has made the impossible now possible for many children. “I felt spirit-led about helping children with disabilities with horses,” she says. She has seen many transformations take place, from the partially-paralyzed girl with spina bifida feeling a horse walk to a boy that first joined the program shouting and screaming but can now ride independently.

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A young rider at summer camp grooms her horse before a ride.

Monique explains, “One of the greatest joys is hearing how this affects their lives outside of here - when the parents come back in and say I don’t have to struggle to get his clothes on any more; he’s less fearful when he used to be afraid of everything.”

Horses for Heroes

Monique views the "Horses for Heroes" program as a natural extension of the Heavenly Gaits farm, and a personal calling as well.  Her ex-husband joined the military and served in Iraq and Afghanistan for three years. “It’s taught him [our son] about service and selflessness. The military takes great pride and I always wanted to thank him for that,” she says.

Through the program, Heavenly Gaits will provide veterans and their families with equine trail rides and riding lessons at no charge.  The local Department of Veterans Affairs office and VFW will provide financial support, and the local women’s auxiliary will volunteer time and assistance.

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Heavenly Gaits will offer trail rides, lessons and therapy for military veterans and their families.

After talking with other veterans groups, Monique envisions a program with two steps. “Usually what happens is veterans come to receive service, but then they come back to volunteer because that’s something that’s almost in born in them,” she says. “And their service to our country is that they still want to continue to serve.”

The initial group of veterans took their first trail ride at the end of June 2017, a long-awaited step forward for this healing heroes program. 


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