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Working with horses, helping little humans

By Kaelanne Jordan

Karen Stollmeyer describes herself as a “lifelong” horse lover. She has had a passion for horses since her involvement as a child. While she has always enjoyed the human-horse connection as leisure, she never imagined a career with horses based on her awareness, even at a young age, that horseback riding is an expensive hobby and an even complex undertaking.

Fast forward to adult life, Stollmeyer’s first career was as a certified speech language pathologist in the US. It was while working she discovered ‘hippotherapy’— a form of physical, occupational and speech therapy that uses equine (horse) movement to develop and enhance neurological and physical functioning by channelling the movement of the horse.

“And to me it seemed like a perfect match because it merged together therapy and horses….” Stollmeyer told Catholic News in an interview.

At that time, Stollmeyer was involved in horseback riding, and together, with an equine instructor, they founded Horses Helping Humans (HHH) in Miami, 1999. The venture, however, was short-lived as after three months, the duo recognised that the logistics was “very tough”.

“Working with horses is challenging,” Stollmeyer explained. “You have to have horses that are of the right temperament, the right training and the ability to work with people and children with special needs. Also, you have to have the right facilities…At the time, they were not my horses…I didn’t have much say in it…. [so] I realised I wouldn’t be able to pursue it at that time.”

After working as a speech pathologist for seven years, Stollmeyer returned to Trinidad at the end of 2003. She however, had no plans of continuing in that field. Instead, she transitioned as a yoga teacher and yoga therapist; a profession she has been involved in since 2004 when she founded Bliss Yoga Trinidad.

Then, in 2011, Stollmeyer was introduced to a horse that needed rescuing.

“At first, I didn’t want to rescue the horse because I knew I didn’t have the time or money to invest in a horse. But the horse just did not leave my awareness. I literally felt the horse was begging me to rescue her. There was no other choice for her, they were going to put her down. After three weeks of mentally saying ‘no, no, I don’t have the time or money’, I just gave in, and I said ‘ok’. And I went to my husband (Ernie Matthews, co-founder) and said ‘we need to adopt this horse.’ And he just jumped right into it….”

Uni was the first horse adopted. She was utilised for hippotherapy for children with special needs. The progress of the first child, Kyle, who is on the autistic spectrum “was so dramatic.” “Within a few sessions he had gone from non-verbal to saying a couple words to being potty trained,” she said.

Immediately, Stollmeyer’s passion returned.

While there were “successes”, the challenge of maintaining horses was relentless. In 2014, Stollmeyer and Matthews invested money in building their own permanent stable. At that time, the conditions on the North Coast “weren’t really the best” so they moved to Maracas, St Joseph in 2018, HHH’s current abode.


Free hippotherapy

HHH comprises seven employees and 11 horses, eight rescued from the racetrack, and three ponies. They are Storm Street; Luna Divina; Jojo; his mother Princess; Ice man, the youngest in the group; Cloud Nine; his best friend Xena; Juice Man; Rainbow; Eleanor and Ginger. HHH also owns six dogs and four chickens.

The average cost of managing the stables and providing free hippotherapy programmes averages $68,000 monthly.

“…and they require seven days a week care. They are fed twice a day and they need to be maintained and groomed and cared for every single day…. You have to pick up buckets and shovel poop, move mud, it’s intense physical work…. And plus, the vet bills are expensive…. That’s why horse riding is so costly. We work by donation, and we have to give a minimum cost, but actually, we give a subsided cost; the true cost of offering what we do is double to what we charge…” Stollmeyer explained.

She shared she was recently asked: ‘Why are you doing this?’. “And I just said, it comes down to love…. When you have a passion for something and these animals and these children and to see these lives turnaround from unhappy and angry… to affectionate and loving and calm and parents smiling… that for me is just amazing.”

Stollmeyer credits fundraising for the last ten years, lots of prayers and corporate sponsorship from the Ministry of Health, Island Roofing, Massy Foundation, Angostura Ltd, NLCB, Republic Bank’s Power to Make a Difference programme, MovieTowne, Digicel, to name a few, and the generous support from the public.

They have sponsored programmes geared towards giving free weekly hippotherapy to autistic children from low-income households. Stollmeyer indicated that most of the case load comes from The Children’s Authority of Trinidad and Tobago, the Autistic Society of Trinidad and Tobago as well as from the public.

Although Stollmeyer has prior experience as a clinician working with children, it was not the same as working with horses.

“Of course, there are tremendous benefits of working in a clinical [environment] but our environment is very different, and it gives kids a sense of freedom. They can run it out. They have more space…everywhere else they are being grabbed and restrained….”

She then spoke of a particular child who is always excited to ride the horse.

“She got on it and she just lies down and hugs her arms around the pony’s neck and lays there smiling. On the horse, what they feel is the deepest unconditional love that they’ve ever felt and that is what the core of the horse is, it’s the unconditional love with no judgement, no discrimination, nothing but connection. A lot of them [children] have never felt that,” Stollmeyer said.

To this end, she stressed the importance of conditioning and de-programming horses from any human connection that may cause the animals to be anxious or nervous.

So, what usually happens during hippotherapy?

Stollmeyer walked Catholic News through the process. The kids are first brought to the stables to say ‘hello’ to the horses. They are then encouraged to feed and groom the horses which helps them with sensory integration.

She outlined that the sessions not only involve all the tasks related to horse care, but it includes motor skills, fine motor skills, gross motor skills and aspects of physical, occupational and speech therapy.

Then the child is required to put on a helmet. This, Stollmeyer said, can pose a “huge challenge” for those with special needs. However, once the child is on the horse and the horse starts to move, they “often instantly” stop crying.

“The motion of the horse is the icing on the cake for everything we’ve done so far. That motion is getting to the child’s sensory system. The whole neurological system is being affected by the motion of the horse. It mimics a human’s walk. And when it does that, it is moving the pelvis and the spine forward and back. It is activating the brain to secrete dopamine and oxytocin, the hormones that reduce stress, calms down and make us feel good. Instantly the brains excrete the hormones, the child stops crying and they realise this is fun.”

Usually, Stollmeyer added, there is no more crying by the following session.

While the sessions are generally aimed at the children, HHH also provides therapy for parents by educating them on how to manage their child’s behaviours. Ninety-seven per cent of the children who leave HHH’s programme are able to be enrolled in some type of school, she said.

HHH also offers horseback riding and equine therapy for persons suffering from stress and other disorders.

“We work with everyone,” she emphasised. She outlined that HHH has been involved in outreach programmes with Sophia House, Credo House and at the Youth Training Centre (YTC).

So, what has Stollmeyer learned over the years from her work with horses?

She told Catholic News, horses taught her how to be patient, gentle, respectful, and kind.

“Horses can go from gentle beings to dangerous if the right conditions are not met. Otherwise, that sweet gentle horse could possibly kick you….”

In discussing her future plans for HHH, Stollmeyer envisioned plans to secure a permanent home for her horses.

“We’ve bounced around too much; we cannot do that. …so that we can offer this to our society for many years to come and to expand even more our services,” Stollmeyer said.

Persons interested in donating to Horses Helping Humans (HHH) can contact Karen Stollmeyer at 768-6394 or connect via Facebook and Instagram ‘Horses Helping Humans (HHH)’.