Topics & Perspectives

Equest: Humans, Horses, and Hope

On its 40th anniversary this year, Equest celebrates co-founder Susan Schwartz. Schwartz was inspired by her late friend and Equest’s co-founder Evelyn Zembrod; together, they fueled Equest’s mission to improve the lives of children, adults, and veterans with diverse needs with both horses and hope.

Equest’s story began in 1981 when Susan — an equestrian herself — volunteered to help Evelyn with an annual day of horseback riding for children with cerebral palsy at a local equestrian club. This day changed her life forever.

When the children arrived in wheelchairs and on crutches, Susan saw fear instead of joy from the children, teachers, and volunteers.

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All smiles

“We got them on the horses, but their leg muscles were so tight, we could barely get their feet in the stirrups,” she remembers of the children.

Shortly into the ride, however, smiles and sparkles emanated from the children’s faces. With a gleam in their eyes, they started laughing and having fun.

The joy of riding was just one of many benefits for the children. “The movement and warmth of the horses’ bodies had a relaxing effect on their rigid muscles, and soon the volunteers could lower the stirrups to accommodate the children’s feet,” Susan said.

Susan and Evelyn noticed the riders were using core muscles and balance to stay astride. They were able to balance because their legs had dropped, their core muscles had kicked in, and they were using muscles they hadn’t used in years due to being in wheelchairs.

“We were flabbergasted,” Susan said. “If one day a year makes this much difference in a child’s life, what would happen if they rode once a week?”

This remarkable experience captured their hearts. They soon launched the first therapeutic equestrian center in Texas, initially called the Freedom Ride Foundation.

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Happy rider

Over the next four decades, Equest evolved into the first world-class therapeutic equestrian center in Texas. It received premier accreditation by industry associations and began entering prominent riding competitions, including World Championships and Paralympics, on behalf of Team USA.

It has expanded its therapeutic programs to include the most recent “Hooves for Heroes Program,” which provides veterans and their dependents with equine facilitated mental health counseling at no cost.

“Horses make great therapeutic partners for our clients because they are nonjudgmental, intuitive, and experts at nonverbal communication,” said Susan. “It’s their nature of being fully present in the moment that makes such a great impact on people with disabilities or with mental health challenges.”

Equest now has more than 200 clients, 30 therapy horses, eight instructors, four PT/OT therapists, two mental health counselors, and more than 400 volunteers who constitute the lifeblood of the organization.

Located in the heart of the Great Trinity Forest in southern Dallas, Equest offers rides on trails through the woods and the benefit of a peaceful environment just outside the bustle of city life. The location extends the organization’s reach into largely under-served neighborhoods.

Equest recently offered its first Ride to Read literacy program to a nearby school where children found a new spark to learn as they interacted with horses for the first time.

Although Evelyn passed away in 2000, Equest gave her and Susan years of joy. “We’ve had people come through here who were told by doctors they would never be able to be independent, and eventually, with therapy, we saw them walk again,” Susan said. “It’s rewarding to see people doing things they’ve been told they would never be able to do.”

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Christine Volkmer

Christine Volkmer came to Equest in 2016 with a 15-year background in public relations and marketing, specializing in nonprofits and national media placement. Her prior career as an educator spanned 10 years with an emphasis on English language learners and children with disabilities. She oversees all development activities including events, fundraising, and communications.

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