Bowling Green stables help disabled people master more than riding

Nancy Canary, of Bowling Green, is the program director and an instructor at New Beginnings, a horse therapy program in Bowling Green. Canary, who started as a volunteer and worked her way up to manager, is now starting a veterans program in addition to the current children’s program.

Monica Spees

Sitting in the shade, gnats flitting around her face, Nancy Canary glanced over her shoulder to the barn where a Quarter Horse let a volunteer brush her.

“We do not do pony rides,” she said emphatically.

Canary is the program director, volunteer coordinator and a registered instructor at New Beginnings Therapeutic Riding, a program that serves individuals with behavioral, emotional, mental and physical disabilities and, according to its website, enhances their lives through the power of horses.

“We don’t just plop (the riders) up there like a pony ride,” Canary said.

New Beginnings teaches students how to ride, groom and tack the horses to the best of their abilities.

The organization, which the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship accredited, began in 1997 when Julie Peterson, the program’s founder, started a backyard project with three horses and three riders.

From there, New Beginnings has gained 130 riders a year with 13 horses on property and 125 volunteers. An indoor arena and other expansions are on the horizon for the program, but they’re funded primarily from private donations and are still waiting for enough funds to begin.

Canary said the program’s primary goal is to work with people with disabilities, but the horses serve as a guide to help the riders gain confidence, mental and physical strength, focus, balance and knowledge.

“We don’t just focus on horse stuff,” Canary said.

She said she and the other workers at New Beginnings also help riders who are struggling with colors, mathematics, spelling or other academic tasks.

“We push them to be as good as they can be,” Canary said. “It’s like the army: Be all you can be. But without the drill sergeant.”

To help them be more comfortable with the animals, riders stay with the same horse year after year. Canary said once a relationship develops, the horse is like family.

“Riding horses, working around horses is really calming,” Canary said. “Horses teach you a lot about yourself.”

She said people can connect with the horses on a mental level and become more sympathetic and empathetic, a concept that can be hard for some students, particularly those with behavioral disabilities, until they get an animal they care about.

“I’ve seen even tough guys go over to their horse and hug them and whisper to them,” Canary said.

Horses allow humans to get in touch with body language and show them how to feel for others, she said.

“They’re the best listeners on the face of the earth,” Canary said. “They don’t judge. They just mirror how you’re feeling.”

Gary and Kate Villereal owned horses at one time in their marriage and started volunteering at New Beginnings in November.

Gary, an associate professor of social work at WKU, said what attracted him to New Beginnings was “being able to help, knowing that help is needed.”

“I think everyone can benefit from working with animals, especially people with disabilities,” Kate said. “And these horses are very well-trained to work with people with disabilities.”

Although the list of benefits from the program is long, Canary said the most important thing they teach at New Beginnings is confidence.

“You’re sitting on top of a thousand-pound horse,” Canary said. “If you can control that horse, then I think you should be confident enough to go out to speak to people or do anything else you want to do.”

Canary said New Beginnings always welcomes more volunteers, and its next fundraising event is a spring bike ride on April 28 that will start at Chaney’s Dairy Barn.