Animal House: Grace Under the Oaks

Animal House: Grace Under the Oaks
Rider Sophie stretches to warm up for her lesson with horse leader Kelly Jones, side-walker Terry Martin & instructor Jennifer Lang.

Horsemanship Helping the Disabled

Grace is just one of many gifts offered at the peaceful, privately-owned equestrian farm where Grace Under the Oaks Adaptive Horseback Riding Center is located. Executive Director Jennifer Lang, a founder and lead riding instructor, is also a youthful, busy mom and wife uniquely qualified for her position. She is a former teacher of the deaf and hard of hearing at Atlantic Coast High School who also served as a volunteer coach for the Special Olympics.

Lang has the calm demeanor and controlled body language of an experienced horsewoman. She is also a knowledgeable, articulate advocate for the benefits of horsemanship for the disabled. Lang leads a dedicated group of like-minded supporters in their mission to improve and enrich the lives of those with special needs through access to horses in a safe, controlled environment.

Marty and Mary Fiorentino have made that safe, controlled environment possible by welcoming Grace to operate on their Northwest St. Johns County property. They wholeheartedly support the mission of Grace Under the Oaks in countless ways, Lang said. Mary, the chair of Grace’s board, can often be found riding, working in the stables, or with her beloved horses.

Grace is the first faith-based program of its kind in the area. They offer custom-designed adaptive riding lessons and assisted activities for adults and children four years and older with special needs and cognitive, physical, or communication challenges. A team of six supporters initially gave birth to the dream that became Grace Under the Oaks. However, Lang said that all 20 individuals who donated at their first fundraiser in 2020 are considered part of their founding family.

“We met and bonded through our service to others, our support of those with special needs, and our love of horses. Being part of this program is a blessing to do what I love and meet riders who inspire me with their open hearts and determined spirits. I witness horses breaking down walls, sparking deep connections, and inspiring others. It doesn’t get much better than that! These horses can work miracles. It is an honor to work alongside them,” Lang said.

Adaptive riding lessons offered at Grace Under the Oaks are considered the middle ground between hippotherapy lessons provided by licensed therapists and a regular horse barn offering traditional riding lessons. There are currently nine boys and girls, ages five to young adult, taking one-on-one custom-designed lessons with Grace instructors and volunteer walkers.

Volunteer Cathy Gurick adjusts rider Ozzie’s stirrup on Radical.
Volunteer Cathy Gurick adjusts rider Ozzie’s stirrup on Radical.

There is a waiting list, but Lang said that for now, they maintain a small program based on their available resources. Lang and the Grace board anticipate that there will be future growth for the program.

The term hippotherapy comes from the Greek words hippo for horse and therapy for treatment. This equine-assisted treatment is provided by licensed  physical, occupational, or speech therapists. This treatment uses the horse’s natural movement, or gait, to provide a broad range of sensory stimuli and exercise for gross and fine motor skills. According to the National Institutes for Health National Center for Biotechnology Information, riders experience many  physical, mental, emotional, and intellectual benefits from equine-assisted therapy.

Hippotherapy was introduced in Europe in the 1960s and spread to the U.S. in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1992 the American Hippotherapy Association, based in Fort Collins, Colo., was established. It introduced official, international treatment protocols, training, and certification standards. The 10th Biennial Conference of the American Hippotherapy Association will meet in Jacksonville, Fla., March 6-9, 2024.

PATH (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International) is a nonprofit professional organization that provides international standards for credentialing and education for adaptive riding instructors. Grace Under the Oaks is a PATH International Member Center. Grace’s adaptive riding lessons and activities are taught by PATH International Certified Riding Instructors.

A stationary, lifelike horse named Cappy makes one unmounted activity possible. Cappy is an Equicizer that operates on strings and the rider’s movement. The Equicizer allows riders to adjust to the saddle and become comfortable with the motion of horseback riding. It is perfect for rider evaluations, warm-ups, stretching, saddling, mounting, dismounting or posting, hand and leg position practice, and building core strength and balance.

“The live horse’s natural movement mimics the normal movement of the human pelvis, hip, back, and core action of our walking,” Lang said. “The rider can experience improved balance and posture, core and overall strength, muscle control and tone, and improved coordination.”

Adaptive riding is done with or without the assistance of one or more volunteer walkers on each side of the horse to help guide and steady the animal and rider. Riding relaxes and strengthens muscles, improving flexibility, relieving stiffness, increasing endurance, or correcting abnormal movement patterns.

The National Institutes of Health report that horseback riders with disabilities gain self-confidence and feelings of well-being and accomplishment, improved communication, concentration, social skills, and interaction. Riders learn self-advocacy skills: how to speak and express their needs or feelings. Other benefits include a sense of independence, improved attitude, patience, and compliance toward therapy and exercise.

The horses chosen for adaptive riding lessons at Grace Under the Oaks are mature and possess specific qualities. They must be calm, gentle, and consistently patient, with a temperament that can be entrusted with precious cargo. 

Interaction with horses and horsemanship training in a non-competitive setting makes learning new skills, self-discipline, and improved concentration possible. Participation in the riding program fosters trust, an emotional connection, and valuable relationships between the horses and participants.

Horseback riding builds a positive self-image. This opportunity may be the first time in a person’s life when he or she can experience independence, a sense of accomplishment, and be part of a team. The rider can interact with the horses, other riders, and instructors and build relationships or friendships that further enhance a healthy, positive self-image.

Rider Sophie reviewing tack before riding.
Rider Sophie reviewing tack before riding.

“Our goal is for students to become independent riders who can walk and trot and eventually progress to a standard lesson horse barn,” Lang said. “For some students, that may happen in months, and for others, it is a longer process, but we are here for them until they are ready.”

Grace students participate in virtual horse shows and practice their dressage skills online. They complete a test for an online judge who provides constructive comments. There are awards and a brunch to make it a complete experience for participants. Grace plans to offer qualifying riders the opportunity to train for participation in future Special Olympics events.

As a nonprofit organization that offers adaptive riding lessons at affordable rates, Grace needs grants, donations, or corporate sponsorships to continue its programs and events. Each weekly lesson costs $80, but they charge a reduced rate of $55. Financial assistance and scholarships are available to qualified riders.

Volunteers are critical to the program to help as “side-walkers” or “team horse handlers” and are considered the backbone of any equestrian program for the disabled. A free, two-hour volunteer orientation is planned for January 2023. Volunteers should complete the volunteer application on their website. No prior experience with horses is required.

There are other ways to help Grace Under the Oaks fulfill its mission. They need a new covered horse pavilion for protection from the weather for riders and horses and a new air-conditioned tack room for storage and activities. Lang said that construction funds, labor, or materials donations would greatly help.

The tack room would be approximately 200 square feet for equipment and supplies storage: saddles, bridles, girths, and horse care equipment. It would also provide much-needed space for riders to work on Cappy, the Equicizer during rain or extreme heat, and for volunteers to cool down.

The new covered horse pavilion would encompass approximately 16 x 24 square feet for lessons, education, and space to groom and tack horses before and after rides.

Grace Under the Oaks is a 501c3 charity, and all donations are tax-deductible. Donations go directly to providing exceptional care and veterinarian expenses for the horses, client scholarships, reduced lesson prices, operational needs, and supplies.

Interested donors should visit, email [email protected] or call (904) 237-5879. Visit the website to volunteer, donate or see their Amazon Wish List.

By Julie Kerns Garmendia
Resident Community News

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