Helpful Horses

Programs build confidence, self-esteem

Story by Marilyn Jones

2 young kids next to 2 horsesFive retired racehorses, as well as two ponies, are changing lives for the better on a ranch outside Yantis. They’re part of Riders Up!, a nonprofit created to aid the horses, children in need of therapy and those who don’t have the means to fulfill their dreams of riding.

“We created Riders Up! for the children who have a passion for horses but not necessarily the means to pursue it and the children who need a dependable friend and therapist in the form of a horse,” says Valerie Mellema, owner and director of Lake Fork Stables, which hosts the program.

Valerie is a proponent of the Horse Boy Method, an equine-assisted learning program for children diagnosed with autism, ADHD, trauma, learning disabilities, PTSD and other neurological conditions. “With these conditions comes stress, which shuts down learning,” she says. “With equine therapy, the children can learn.”

The joy from spending time with the horses produces oxytocin that helps children think and speak more clearly, Valerie says. Families receive four hours of customized Horse Boy Method sessions designed around their child’s specific interests and needs.

Lake Fork Stables also offers free equine therapy retreats for families with children on the autism spectrum. “We provide customized three-day and two-night stays complete with accommodations, a night out to dinner and much more,” Valerie says.

A Passion for Horses

little kid on a horseValerie had horses as a child, and when her family moved to Lake Fork 12 years ago, she wanted to get involved with horses again. Soon thereafter, her husband, Troy, bought her a retired racehorse and horses have been back in her life ever since.

The couple acquired more land, built rental cottages, offered horseback riding excursions for guests and Lake Fork Stables was born.

One day, Valerie received a call from Tracy Sheffield at The Paddock Foundation, a nonprofit corporation that supports and advances the care of retired thoroughbred racehorses through rehabilitation, retraining and rehoming. Valerie already was mulling an idea to use her retired racehorses to provide low-income and underprivileged children with riding lessons when a message she heard at Lake Fork Baptist Church tied it all together. “My preacher had a sermon about using our talents to help in the community,” she says.

On a Mission

Valerie applied for nonprofit status in October 2019 with a mission to provide local kids an opportunity to learn horse care, riding skills and stable management, while providing retired thoroughbreds with renewed purpose. “It helps to ensure they have a second career after racing,” she says. “It is our goal for them to be ambassadors of the breed, proving that the thoroughbred is suitable as a lesson horse, kid horse and family horse.”

With Horse Powered Reading, another program offered at Lake Fork Stables, children meet the horses and pick one to be their reading buddy. “Sometimes a child isn’t at grade level in their reading ability which causes stress,” Valerie says. Reading to a horse takes the pressure off. “It makes reading a game,” she says.

A painting pony, Mr. Bubbles, also helps relieve stress at Lake Fork Stables. “He’s our very own professional artist,” Valerie says. “His paintings are available for sale, and all proceeds support Riders Up!”

Lake Fork Stables

horse standing over toy horsesValerie and Troy Mellema, owners of Lake Fork Stables, believe so deeply in the power of the human-equine connection that they offer special programs aimed at helping children with special needs.

To help support that vital work, Valerie and Troy purchased adjoining land and converted an existing building into a bingo hall. Big Bass Bingo opened in April, and the couple hopes the funds it generates will allow Valerie to continue her charitable efforts.

“We are very excited about Big Bass Bingo,” Valerie says. “There are a lot of challenges to fundraising, particularly in a rural com- munity. We hope there will be a consistent income with bingo to not only help fund our programs, but that we can grow it with other nonprofits to help more people in our community.”

Lake Fork Stables offers a variety of other programs, including:

  • Horses4Heroes — Half-price riding lessons for the children of military personnel.
  • Working Student program — This program allows teens to work toward free riding lessons while gaining hands-on stable management and horse care experience.
  • Horsemanship course — Children and adults learn every- thing involved with horse care from handling, feeding and hoof care to lessons in safety, grooming, tacking up and groundwork. Students also learn how horses think and react and how the handler can influence the animal’s behavior.
  • Pony Club — A national organization similar to Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, FFA and 4H, Pony Club members can experience a range of disciplines and activities, including riding lessons, show competitions and other horse-related activities.
  • Riding lessons — Paid lessons for adults and children.