At 80 years old, John Newman has accomplished a lot in his life: serving in the Air Force for 20 years, working at Battelle in information technology and raising a family. But when he learned about Dreams on Horseback, a volunteer-based stable that offers equine experience and education to those with challenges caused by disabilities and military service-related trauma, age didn’t stop him from getting involved.
“When I think about him, one of the phrases that comes to mind is ‘Gentleman John,’” said Jennifer Hanson, executive director and founder of Dreams on Horseback. “If there is something that needs to be taken care of, he certainly is ready to get his hands dirty every single week.”
Newman began volunteering at Dreams in 2017 after Darlene Bell, the military connections coordinator, met Newman’s daughter and gave her a brochure for the military connections program.
“She had an open house and I went to that, and this group was just something you wanted to be involved with,” Newman said.
He completed his volunteer orientation less than a week after the open house, Bell said. Since then, Newman has become an integral volunteer in the military connections program, therapeutic riding lessons and barn care.
Prior to volunteering at Dreams, Newman was involved with Lost Acres Horse Rescue and Rehabilitation in Chillicothe during the mid ’90s. He also adopted three horses, which led to him buying a farm outside of Amanda in Fairfield County. This helped make Dreams a natural fit due to his 20-year history with horses, even with maintaining his own farm.
“John cares so much about others that he not only manages his own farm, but he comes here and helps to manage the care of our therapeutic centers,” Hansen said. “And truly, we would be lost without his support and all of the help that he provides here.”
The dedication Newman has given to Dreams earned him the center’s volunteer of the year award in 2018—he clocked in over 220 hours in less than a year in a center with more than 175 volunteers. Before the coronavirus pandemic, Newman would average eight hours a week of volunteering at the stables.
“He has been the most active volunteer,” Hansen said. “He’s almost here as much as I am and ready to jump in and do anything he can to support our young riders to our military riders.”
Newman helps with the horsemanship program, where veterans learn to ride and take care of a horse, as well as a program called equine-assisted learning that’s more focused on learning how to interact with a horse. There are also military kids camps and a military appreciation day once a year, and Newman accompanies Bell on recruiting trips to the Chalmers P. Wylie Ambulatory Care Center to get other veterans interested in Dreams’ military program, which most notably helps soothe post-service PTSD.
“I don’t ever think about our program without thinking that it’s just John and I together doing this and trying to reach veterans,” Bell said.
Newman also helps with the therapeutic riding lessons, something he had never had experience with before. During a therapeutic riding lesson, those with special needs—sometimes kids as young as 3 or 4 years old—ride a horse while accompanied by a horse leader and two side-walkers. These lessons help with physical, cognitive and behavioral difficulties, such as teaching children discipline and respect when preparing and riding a horse, as well as helping them control their emotions to keep a horse calm.
Although he’s only been there a few years, Newman has made an impact on the participants and the rest of the staff—kids look forward to riding alongside “Mr. John,” and volunteers enjoy working with someone who’s been described as humble, strong and selfless by his co-workers. And Newman has felt the impact his riders and co-workers have made on him while volunteering at Dreams.
“I’m sure you hear this from every volunteer, but no matter how much effort you put into it, you get so much more out of it,” Newman said.