Written by Kayla Elais | Photos by Christy and Lacy Warner 

The long, tree-lined driveway was a welcome sight for students and families after nearly 6 weeks away. They weren’t sure what to expect by attending a “Farm Safari,” but they knew one thing: It was good to be home!  

Sprout Therapeutic Riding and Education Center in Aldie is the “happy place” for hundreds of people with differing abilities. It is designed to be a place where they are accepted for who they are and challenged to “live their best life…with the help of a horse.”

Since 2011, Sprout has served its community faithfully by using hands, hearts, and horses to meet the needs of individuals with physical, cognitive, social, and emotional needs.  The center has 15 staff members, 18 horses, 135 weekly students, and hundreds of volunteers that make up a community of “poss-abilitarians,” also known as people who see others for their abilities and focus on the positive.

“There are a lot of boots on the ground each and every day. People that we care passionately about. People that we want to serve and also want to keep safe,” says Sprout Founder and Executive Director, Brooke Waldron. “So, on March 12, we had to make the difficult decision to pause on our largest session yet. It was a heart-wrenching choice, but one that we couldn’t avoid.”

But out of crisis came hope. Many students chose to donate the cost of their lessons back to Sprout, helping the center continue critical horse care and staffing during the closure.

As a way of saying “thank you” and staying connected with students during the closure, the Sprout staff hosted self-guided “Farm Safari” tours in April and May. Families were given a safari route around the perimeter of the farm, complete with an audio voice tour guide, car-ride bingo, and visits with horses and staff from afar.

“We got to see all our favorite Sprout friends, horses… a few deer ran by as the Jurassic Park theme music played over the voices of our favorite people during the farm tour,” says Nikki Thiem, mother of Sprout student, Bella. “With Sprout being one of Bella’s favorite places to be and terribly missing it, getting out there, seeing her smile … was something so very special.” 

“I loved learning about the farm and the horses,” says seven-year old Sprout student, Aaron Kunwar. “It was fun seeing everyone!”

Bringing People “Into Our Herd”

With the closure for COVID-19, Sprout has had to innovate, not only in the way it brings services to clients (typically involving in-person students with the horses at the farm), but also with how it continues to build a socially-close community in a physically-distanced world.

“When all this started, we reacted by taking a hard look at our vision for Sprout,” says Waldron. “Surprisingly, but perhaps not, it had nothing to do with the way we deliver our services (which is usually through the horse) and had everything to do with things we felt we could and should continue, regardless of whether we were able to use the farm or not. Our vision is to provide hope, healing, empowerment and recovery to the community. So we have been committed to continue that.”

Since the closure, Sprout has taken to social media to engage the community. This has included weekly content such as “Motivation Monday” interviews with inspiring figures (from Paralympians to business leaders), “Trivia Tuesday” educational quizzes, online video lessons, and live “Fitness Friday” workouts from health/wellness experts and adaptations created to include those with various physical abilities. Sprout launched a horse community blog, hosted weekly book clubs, and is planning a virtual “Quarantine Classic” horseless horse show next month.

“We feel passionately about creating our own content,” says Waldron. “We believe that it ensures that our message is thoughtfully expressed and consistent with our organizational culture. To us, community is a two-sided relationship, so we have been trying to not only give information but to also engage conversation and bring people into our herd.” 

An engaging and inclusive mantra is what makes Sprout so important in the lives of its students, like long-time participant Rachael Wessel. 

“Sprout has always been so much more than a therapy for me,” says Wessell. “When I heard that the barn wouldn’t be open, I immediately felt extreme loss because I wouldn’t have a vital emotional, mental and physical form of therapy. I was so sad, but luckily Sprout reached out immediately. I feel inspired every day and I’m connected in a new way to the barn. I get to see the staff taking care of the horses, I get to laugh at jokes, talk to my friends, and I get to “virtually” touch my horse each week on Zoom calls. Even though it’s not the real thing, it gives me a life-saving reason to stay strong.”

The team at Sprout looks forward to bringing its community back “home” soon.  “We miss seeing our students in the barn and we are working hard to keep our base operations going, so we can jump back into action as soon as it is feasibly possible,” says Waldron, “Our horses remain a priority during this time and they are receiving daily care, grooming, exercise and medical support. We are devoted to our Sprout staff that give so much of themselves to this program and we have committed to maintain our full-time employees while continuing to utilize the talents and skills of instructors to keep our horses cared for and in working condition. We are committed as an organization to weather the storms that come our way by adapting and overcoming as true poss-abilitarians do!” ML

This article first appeared as an online exclusive on Middleburglife.com