Law school may seem like a strange foundation upon which to build a nonprofit focused on horses. But in those stressful days of studying and preparing for the bar exam, Jennifer Hansen found another passion.
Hansen found relief in horses—specifically, her horse, Daisy. As an outlet from school, Hansen volunteered to bring Daisy to church events so that children could interact with her. Quickly, the requests multiplied, and Hansen and Daisy began visiting more churches and schools as well. She especially enjoyed sharing Daisy with inner-city youth who might never have encountered a horse up close before. There was a fulfillment in sharing that experience and before long, Hansen realized this is how she wanted to spend her days.
In 2002, Hansen and her husband bought a barn in Blacklick. She could now cut out the travel part of the experience and bring the youth to the horses, and Dreams on Horseback was born. The visits from the children turned into what is now the center’s vocational program that teaches inner-city students workplace skills such as communicating with a supervisor or handling conflict through care of horses.
Dreams on Horseback offers a variety of programs for just about anyone in the community from ages 3 to 93. The center has grown from its original vocational emphasis to become a premier therapeutic center accredited by the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International, or PATH, offering therapeutic riding lessons, Alzheimer’s sensory programs, military connections and equine-assisted learning. The growth of the center has brought the comfort of horses to more lives than Hansen could have expected, but she says the growth could not have happened without the passion from the surrounding community.
“It truly has been the community that has brought this change,” says Hansen, 50. “Each program has followed a path that was not carved by my hand. It was carved by all the people that have come to this farm that love horses, love helping others and have a passion or a need. It was the right people at the right time, and I couldn’t be more thankful.”
Heidi Clous, Dreams on Horseback’s assistant development director, first became involved with the organization in 2008 when her daughter Ava was diagnosed with classic nonverbal autism. Heidi instantly began traditional therapy programs for Ava but felt something missing. Eventually she discovered the therapy riding lessons offered by Dreams on Horseback. The connection between Ava and the horses became clear when Ava spoke her first word while atop a therapy horse at the age of 4.
“It was revolutionary,” says Heidi. “She was speaking to the horse, not to me, and it was this connection she had with the horses that gives me so much hope. I didn’t know what her future would be, but it’s helped her, me and the whole family.”
Ava, now 11, competes on the organization’s Special Olympics equestrian team and rides weekly.
Dreams on Horseback supports more than 95 students each week in its various programs and has a volunteer base of more than 150 students and 24 part-time staff members. It’s grown far beyond the original one-horse shows Hansen and Daisy put on 16 years ago.
“Was this the life I expected when I went to law school? Absolutely not,” Hansen said. “I was looking at having a high-end job, traveling the world. But could I ever ask for anything more fulfilling? Absolutely not.”