Tucked just off of U.S. 377, Dustin Mohon and Mabry Gayhart practiced riding their horses in a corral.
Mabry led a small horse named Mr. Flash around the fencing of the corral, while Dustin rode atop Repeat, following a series of flags and poles on an obstacle course. Both of them couldn’t contain their excitement when the horse did exactly what they wanted them to do.
The instructor, Julie Coady, asked how riding Repeat made Dustin feel. After uttering the words “my Peat” and “proud,” he pointed at his heart and said it “felt good,” then gave two thumbs up.
Dustin, who is autistic, and Mabry, who is epileptic, were both conducting their horse-riding lessons at Blue Sky Therapeutic Riding and Respite. The facility, which was founded by Coady in 2010, is meant to provide instruction not only on horse riding, but also on life skills and structure to those with mental or physical disabilities.
“Learning it here in an easy place that she loves is an easy way to learn structure,” Mabry’s mother Amy said. “Then we go in turn to use it in the more difficult situations, which are at home or at school — the places that aren’t her favorites. In Mabry’s instance, she’s non-verbal. I think the reason she loves its so much is this animal that she rides is someone who completely gets everything she’s saying.
“She can tell it where to go instead of us telling her where to go. It’s an open communication. She’s in control. For once she feels powerful. She feels powerful.”
Amy is on the board for Blue Sky, but she simply got involved after bringing Mabry to lessons a few years back.
Blue Sky gives around 25 lessons a week to individuals from 5 years old to 68 years old with a wide range of special needs. The company suggests $40 per ride as a fee, but no one is ever turned away due to an inability to pay.
Coady is the only instructor at the facility. She is certified through the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH).
Blue Sky was originally located in Argyle, then Pilot Point, then at Tejas Ranch owned by the Birdsong family. When their current location on U.S. 377 opened up, Coady jumped at the chance to own a facility. They began financing their 9-acre lot in late 2014 and began operating there in January 2015.
Coady said Blue Sky gives citizens with disabilities a place of their own.
“They’re not playing on the soccer team. They’re not playing on baseball teams and things like that. You don’t see a lot of disabled children or young adults in extracurricular activities. This is a place that’s theirs,” she said.
Lessons are coordinated through the TEACH program, which is based on structure and repetition for ease of understanding. Gayhart said the ultimate goal is for the riders to become independent and functional on their own at Blue Sky.
Mabry’s lesson throughout the morning consisted of flash cards that cued her on what step in the process she was working on, whether it was riding the horse, brushing the horse, taking off its tack or even picking vegetables from the garden. Whenever she veered off of the lesson, Coady would simply show her the flash card.
“It takes a lot of work and a lot training and effort and preparation to individualize everyone’s needs,” Coady said. “It’s allowed us to really take on some riders that may be turned away at other places.”
Gayhart added that the program gives Mabry and the other riders responsibility for their own horse.
Through riding a horse and caring for it, Coady said the riders are able to achieve something that can be difficult for anyone, whether they have disabilities or not.
“Once you see that click — when they get up on their horse and when they start realizing that they can control where the horse’s feet go — it’s a pretty powerful thing,” Coady said. “You’ve seen them do something that’s difficult for the typical person to learn. I think that kind of empowers them.”
Blue Sky has been sustained through donors, riders’ fees and sales through the program’s PURPOSE initiative (Providing Unique and Real Possibilities and Opportunities for Special Needs Equestrians).
They’ve recently started having Fun Fridays, where riders will work on arts and crafts and cultivate vegetables in the farm’s garden. They will then have markets to sell their products to the public. Blue Sky has raised more than $6,000 over the two markets they’ve had so far. They are also selling produce at the Frisco Farm Stop.
“The idea is basically to eventually create jobs for our special needs adults,” Gayhart said.
“The opportunities are so limited.”
The staff at Blue Sky aren’t resting any time soon, either. They’ve recently hired two part-time staff members, James Marshall and Heidi Herring, as the only paid employees at the facility.
Their ultimate goal is to provide housing at the farm, so families can drop off their children or adults with special needs to stay at the farm for extended periods of therapy and instruction.
While it’s a long-term goal, Coady said it’s important because having respite for the special needs citizens and their families is key to a healthy family environment.
“Every special-needs family knows what respite is,” Coady said. “It’s just a chance to breathe out and know that you can hand your most important person in your life, your most vulnerable person, to somebody that is skilled and qualified to do the job right. You can take a breath out.”
Herring, one of the staff members, is currently training to be an instructor at Blue Sky, which will open some opportunities to bring in new riders.
The horses, or “therapists,” have come from all areas, and most of them are either retired show horses or rodeo horses that have been around people for their entire lives. Coady said they’ve all “taken to the work” and “they get it.”
It’s obvious the horse riding was the major draw for both Dustin and Mabry. Gayhart said it never ceases to amaze her, the way Mabry’s face lights up when she’s around the horses. Dustin took some convincing to get off of Repeat.
Coady said she can’t emphasize enough how important it is for special needs adults and children to receive special care and attention. Even more than that, they need a place where they can relax and enjoy their surroundings.
Mabry rode around the farm on the farm’s small John Deere tractor with her instructor — a reward for a successful day caring for her horse.
“There’s a critical need for really good, quality, well-trained people,” Coady said, watching Mabry with a smile. “It shouldn’t be a last resort. They are our most vulnerable population and I just really strongly feel that it’s important that we serve them well.
“It can’t be done in a haphazard way.”
Blue Sky will be hosting their second-annual Horses & Hope event on August 15 at the Milestone Barn in Aubrey. There will be a barbeque dinner, live music and silent and live auctions. Tickets are $75 each or two for $125. All proceeds go to the Blue Sky organization. For tickets, go to www.blueskytexas.org.