COCONUT CREEK, Fla. - When your hear the phrase "emotional support animal," the first thing that comes to your mind is likely of something small and cuddly, such as a dog or cat.
But at Equine-Assisted Therapies of South Florida, it's horses that help with the healing.
"Horses are just beings that pick up on all kinds of emotions," said Molly Murphy, the Executive Director at Equine-Assisted Therapies. "It provides confidence and can give you that sense of accomplishment. They're amazing creatures and we're blessed to be able to work with them."
Founded in 1982, Equine-Assisted Therapies provides therapeutic riding and equine activities to both children and adults living with special needs in order to help improve their physical, mental and emotional health. Located at Tradewinds Park in Coconut Creek, the organization oversees 2.5 acres of land, a covered arena for training courses and a 12-stall barn to house the horses.
At these facilities, participants of all ages and ability levels can enjoy several equine programs, such as Therapeutic Riding, Equine-Facilitated Learning and Equine-Facilitated Psychotherapy.
"We currently serve over 100 students per year," Murphy said. "Predominantly we're serving individuals on the autism spectrum, but there are individuals with disabilities like cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, individuals that are dealing with the impact of a stroke and things like that. It really runs the gamut, both from a cognitive perspective all the way to the physical perspective."
An important part of the organization's programming involves a unique "sensory trail," which Murphy describes as "U-turn with implementations" within the 10-mile trot through the park.
"Those implementations take individuals out of sensory defensiveness," Murphy said. "There's things like musical instruments, color boards and brail boards. There's a little bit of painted wildlife in the trail. All of that just gives our instructors a little extra when they're teaching."
The trail also now features the Florida Panthers.
Following Hurricane Irma in 2017, Equine-Assisted Therapies was presented with a Community Champions Grant from the Florida Panthers Foundation to help repair parts of the trail that had been damaged in the storm. Additionally, part of the $15,000 donation they received was also used to purchase new supplies to help with therapeutic riding and equine-assisted learning.
Entering its fourth season, the Community Champions Grant Program, which is presented Moss & Associates, LLC and Moss Foundation, awards a donation to one 501(c)(3) organization or government agency serving in the South Florida area at each of the Panthers home contests.
During the first three years of the program, the Florida Panthers Foundation awarded a total of $3 million to more than 120 organizations. Launched under the leadership of owners Vincent J. Viola and Douglas Cifu in 2016, the program has committed $5 million over a five-year span.
"This was such a unique project that we've never really experienced before," said Danielle Jacobs, a Florida Panthers Foundation Coordinator. "Being in our backyard in Coconut Creek, only 20 miles away from the arena, and supporting one of the four pillars of our organization, children's health and education. Equine-Assisted Therapies provides these classes and programs to kids with special needs."
With the help of the Panthers, the revitalization of the "sensory trail" is already benefitting many Equine-Assisted Therapies participants like Anthony McLelland, who rides his horse, Star, once a week and has been partaking in the organization's helpful programming for almost 30 years.
"It's really refreshing," McLelland, who began riding when he was four years old, said of the trail. "You get to be in the atmosphere and get to experience the wildlife… This is my second home. It's a blessing. I like it a lot… Riding horses is something that you'd actually really love. Being surrounded by animals and being able to connect with the horses is a wonderful experience."