Winston Churchill said it best: “There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.” Local Olympia resident, Mindy Stanley, got to experience this early on, but not everyone is that lucky. Horses are expensive, take a lot of work and time and if you do not know about them, they can be very intimidating. However, Mindy’s horsemanship program Buddy Up!, makes it easy to learn about and love these amazing animals. Be warned however; you will probably develop a passion that will last a lifetime.
Mindy tells me the roots of Buddy Up! came while she was pursuing a nursing degree and decided to change the focus of her education. “My goal was to get kids and adults who are fragile out into nature. A lot of them were not able to do that because of their illness or diagnosis.” By attending a small college in New York, Mindy could pursue a degree in Recreation Therapy with a minor in Equestrian Studies. Upon graduation, she had the opportunity to intern at a variety of places from Maryland to Seattle working with adults and children doing therapeutic riding and camping.
After eventually making her way back to Olympia, Mindy became involved with a local recreational therapy organization, but, unfortunately, it closed its doors shortly thereafter. “It’s such an important thing for people with special needs to be able to work with horses and it’s so needed in the community. I wanted to make sure there was a place where kids could ride with their families and friends and have horses that bring people together. Not focus on their disabilities, but what we have in common,” she said. So, in 2010, the Buddy Up! Horsemanship program was founded.
“It kind of started as a kid’s program, but it’s really for anyone who would like to learn about horses,” said Mindy. “And it’s not just about riding; it’s truly about horsemanship and the relationship. If somebody can’t ride, they can still get huge benefits from being around the horse.”
Mindy says they now have more than 20 students, ranging from age five to a woman in her mid-seventies, some with special needs and many without. “I do believe that if you can have a partnership with a horse it’s going to lead into your life in so many ways. You’re going to be able to have boundaries and to say this is my bubble, this is my personal space. You’ll learn to be assertive but compassionate and also how to encourage others.”
At Buddy Up! students learn all aspects of horsemanship, from cleaning stalls, worming and caring for their feet, to how to groom them properly. Students can see if they truly want their own horse before making that commitment. “If they can stick through it, then I know the kids who are probably ready for a horse of their own. It’s also about protecting horses, because one of the big issues of how horses get into those auctions and bad situations is because people think they want a horse, and they don’t know anything about them.”
What does it take to be a horse who can teach so many kinds of people, specifically some with special needs? Mindy says she is very fortunate to have found two horses for her program that are just as much teachers as she and the other two instructors are. Ivy, a beautiful white Norwegian Fjord and Zoren, a handsome bay Morgan, are patient, kind and forgiving, but also ready to challenge the students. Their owners graciously allow Buddy Up! to use them for the program because they know it is beneficial for the participants.
“It warms my heart and gives me goosebumps because sometimes Ivy will literally hug somebody. They’ll come up to her and she will wrap her neck around them. I think she knows when somebody needs that,” says Mindy.
It also takes a very special person to teach, and Mindy is blessed to have her sister, Stacy, on board as well as a former volunteer turned teacher, Lynn. With all three certified as horsemanship trainers, and Mindy’s additional certifications as a Recreational Therapist and Path International Instructor, parents can feel confident bringing their kids to Buddy Up!
Mindy says, “There’s something special about horses, their intuition. I heard somebody speak their first word at the age of 21 because they were asked if they wanted to get off their horse and they said no.”
Mindy says her students especially look forward to the summer every year when Buddy Up! hosts day camps. She explains that their summer camp revolves around horses, and the campers’ disabilities do not hold them back. “Sometimes these special needs kids don’t have the skills to relate with others, but they can sure talk about horses, so it really connects them.” Friendships are formed, confidence is boosted and everyone enjoys themselves.
“It’s just really a special time,” said Mindy. “I love those day camps because they really build relationships and a lot of times kids, especially horse crazy kids, don’t have anybody to share that with, but here they come together. You get to see a whole different side and passion come out of them.”