Grantee Spotlight Series: Divine Equine Therapeutic Riding Center

Jan 7, 2022

Grantee Spotlight Series: Divine Equine Therapeutic Riding Center


Shunnay Gilmore

Hello, Texoma Community! I am excited to share a special series highlighting some of our amazing THF grant recipients. It is always a pleasure to get to see the incredible work of these organizations, so I can’t wait for you to get a close-up look at the critical and impactful differences they are making in our community. Their stories are powerful, unique and inspiring! You can directly support their services by giving to THF’s unrestricted fund. When THF receives an unrestricted donation, 100% of those funds go back to the community through our grants and giving. Thank you for helping us make a difference right here in Texoma, every day.

Shunnay Gilmore

Grants & Giving Lead

Texoma Health Foundation

We kick off our series highlighting our THF grant recipients in my interview with Cynthia Ward, Executive Director of Divine Equine Therapeutic Riding Center. Divine Equine is Texoma's only therapeutic riding center, located in Sherman, Texas. Cynthia, along with instructors, equine specialists, psychotherapists and volunteers at the riding center, provide a unique experience using the calming power of horses and active therapy techniques.

Cynthia, like most non-profit staff members, serves in numerous areas of the riding center. While her official title may be Executive Director, she also instructs classes, provides medical care for the horses, and contributes to the operations side of the business. We at THF know how hard our non-profit partners work, and it never ceases to amaze!

You can easily sense Cynthia’s deep connection to the horses, and her passion for the calm they bring riders as she explains the foundation of this unique therapy technique:  

“Horses have this magnetic field that helps you relax and feel calm. When you are grooming a horse, their heart rate is only 45 beats per minute. Then, when you are grooming with that rhythmic motion, you start calming down, too.”

Divine Equine has been helping our community since 2012, but the impact of equine therapy Cynthia has felt in her own life is years in the making. She shares with me the difficult history that led her to make a difference in her life and the lives of others:

“I grew up with horses most of my life. We had two children who had muscular dystrophy (now called muscular atrophy syndrome). Back then there wasn’t any kind of physical therapy or anything other than a hospital therapy center. When both of our children passed, our horses helped us work through the grief of their deaths. Later, when we began to foster children, we would use the horses with them, and we noticed they were calmer after working with the horses. My husband was also in the military, and he would go on missions – some of them were pretty rough – and when he’d come back, after he spent about six hours with a horse, he was a totally different person, we could see the change. Later, I heard a woman’s story of using her own horse for physical therapy after a paralyzing car accident as a teen. When I heard her talk about this, I started thinking, ‘I’ve been doing something like this with able-bodied riders, and now I wanted to do this with non-able-bodied riders.’”

Thanks to Cynthia’s dedication and ability to overcome her own life challenges, Divine Equine now serves roughly 60 riders in our community each week. These riders are as young as four years old, with their oldest rider currently aged 82! The riding center partners with organizations like Grayson County Juvenile Probation Center and Texas Community Center to serve children in need of behavioral therapy as well as working with veteran’s groups serving veterans with mental and physical needs. Cynthia and her team truly impact members of our community from every walk of life.

As Cynthia describes the activities that are customized to each rider and their therapy needs, I’m amazed at the wide range of benefits seen by her team thanks to these magnificent horses. Although activities may seem mundane on the surface – things like grooming, cleaning, chores and learning how to properly saddle and ride a horse – each task serves a specific purpose in the therapeutic process. And the results are truly incredible.

“It’s a progression. First, we are helpers and then we become overseers. We work with a lot of children in the behavioral system. By giving them the responsibility to take care of their own items, we see [those behaviors] carry home so that their parents also see that they are productive and can handle the tasks put in front of them. The same is true for our non able-bodied riders. We help them and as they progress and strengthen to take on more of the task they feel like a part of the process. Family members see results at home and better progress in other therapies."

For riders with disabilities or physical therapy needs, these activities help improve flexibility, balance and strength. Completing chores and other tasks also helps riders (and their families) realize how capable they can be – leading to even more progress at home! For riders with behavioral or mental therapy needs, the calm respect that must be established in order to ride provides “space” for riders to confront difficult emotions. For all riders, the unique relationship with Divine Equine’s horses helps boost their confidence, patience and self-esteem. These physical and emotional rewards benefit our entire community as we help care for our most vulnerable.

“This active therapy. [Riders] are working without really knowing they are working. They are learning to maneuver a horse while working through issues. They are learning how to breathe and relax!”

Each class in the program is divided into stages of therapy, including walk-and-talk sessions with a licensed psychotherapist, grooming and preparing the horses, and riding with an equine specialist. This carefully crafted routine helps each rider express difficult feelings and work through thoughts and emotions in a more relaxed state of mind. And Cynthia is quick to point out, the need to work through difficult feelings has never been higher. She has seen first-hand the mental health impact the pandemic has had in our community – and the rapidly-growing demand for mental health services.

“I have been amazed how bad the mental health strain has been with Covid. We even have several families that come here now, doing family therapy, because of the difficult dynamics that the pandemic has caused. If we didn’t have this grant from THF, none of this would have happened – we would not have known how much this was needed in the community. Because we are able to offer this to our community, we now know this is a necessity.”

When I asked Cynthia about her favorite aspect of this work, her answer confirmed what I already knew: our Texoma community is better with her, and Divine Equine Therapeutic Riding Center, in it.

“My favorite moment … the smiles on parent’s faces. The ah-ha moment when a rider gets it – and it clicks. When a child is riding, and they are trying to find their balance and you see it in their face when they find it. You start seeing a different rider – and that’s when it gets fun, and we can transition from walk to trot!”

I am honored to share the story of the critical work and the important impact Divine Equine has each day in our community, and we are proud to help support their work through the THF community grant program. If you want to learn more about Divine Equine’s work, check out their website.

– Shunnay

Hello, Texoma Community! I’m Shunnay Gilmore, and I am honored to serve our community as the Grants & Giving Lead for Texoma Health Foundation. I am here to support you throughout the grant process. If you have any questions, just give me a call.

Shunnay Gilmore