WORDS: Bre Jones Mulock
PICTURES: Whitney Patton
Autumn skies cloaked in shadow and misty rain hovered above an emerald green pasture, as 12-year-old Mason Kramer – donning a tucked-in black T-shirt, red plaid button-down, jeans, boots, and a curved-rim, suede cowboy hat – sauntered proudly into a dim-lit barn clutching a rope that led his beloved Donkey across the damp, brick pavers.
As a drafty breeze whistled through the barn, Kramer stood center stage with a smile brighter and bigger than his oversized belt buckle. Most afternoons, you can find Kramer – a middle-schooler with Down’s Syndrome who loves ballroom dancing, cooking up zucchini chips, and cracking jokes – at the barn practicing his reading to Donkey with horse Willow grazing nearby.
Perched on a bed of hay, Kramer often reads and pushes through weekday homework among the ten horses and five cats at Hooves with H.E.A.R.T., a non-profit that channels support and hope to individuals with special needs through equine-assisted activities and riding therapies. And when hospital testing or busy weeks pull Kramer away from his favorite animal buddy, Kramer peers into the barn through his V.I.P access, Donkey Cam.
“I am so grateful for this place,” said Laura Kramer, Mason’s mom. “Mason can just be Mason here because the animals don’t judge him. Here he works on independence, comprehension, sequencing, and spending time at the barn serves as a huge motivator for him to get what he needs to do at home done. If we can’t get here, he checks on Donkey from home with the camera.”
Stretching out into a field of green laced with white pasture fences, Cavelli Creek Farms partnered with the Special Olympics Florida, Manatee County in 2018 to build an equestrian program serving children with special needs in the community by offering ten riding lessons to each child November-March. However, standing in the cozy barn lined with wooden stalls and iron latches in the spring of 2020, Hooves with H.E.A.R.T founder and President Danielle Curtis brainstormed a way to keep kids in the saddle year-round with the birth of her non-profit.
“Horseback riding not only develops muscle strength but also teaches discipline, self-control, and patience,” said Curtis, who grew up riding horses in New York. “It lays the groundwork of bonding with these animals, instilling empathy, compassion, and dedication. We didn’t want these kids to lose all the progress they made during the Special Olympics season by having to stop.”
Existing on donations, community support, a small but mighty core of passionate volunteers, and space donated by the farm owner, Bonnie Golino, the non-profit currently serves 18 children who ride weekly. They participate in lessons that are designed to improve physical and mental disabilities, cognitive and behavioral issues, and social interactions while promoting self-confidence to those with special needs.
“What truly sets us apart is we are one of the few riding centers that provide groundwork activities for those with special needs like grooming, leading, and barn work,” said Curtis, who started the program after witnessing the benefits of horse riding for her own daughter, Madison, who has ADHD. “These activities allow the kids to truly connect with the animals.”
The quiet, safe, and welcoming barn lured in Austin Ford, a 21-year-old on the autism spectrum, to swing by and volunteer most days after work, tending to the barn and animals. A calm, shy person, Ford would not make eye contact and rarely said more than a couple of one-word answers to others at the barn when he first discovered the facility. Now he is quick to strike up a chat and even coach other volunteers on the right way of barn work. Even horse Valentino, who can show a feisty streak, gravitates toward Ford, following him around the pasture and lowering his head for some love.
“This place is a miracle,” said Ford’s mom, Susan Ford, who also serves on the board of Hooves with H.E.A.R.T. “Austin has grown and changed so much since he started here. Now he doesn’t stop talking.”
When Austin Ford’s anxiety over a new job interview surged, the Hooves with H.E.A.R.T volunteers huddled around him at the barn and coached him on interview tips – what to say, what to wear. The news he got the job sparked cheers and hollers to ripple through the barn.
“These kids are all of our kids, and we love them like they are our own,” said Curtis, her eyes pooling with tears. “We truly care about them and celebrate their progress and success.”
Exuding kindness and a problem-solving, positive look at life, Curtis talks with an exciting speed, gushing over the kids and dedicated volunteers who help keep the gears of Hooves with H.E.A.R.T churning. She stresses every volunteer involved also juggles a full-time career.
“These kids matter so much to us,” said Curtis, who shared goals of growing a carrot garden for the horses and building a covered arena for the riders. “At the end of my workday, coming here is such a relief. Our volunteer program offers high school kids community service hours and even younger kids the chance to contribute to their community. We even have a grandmother who helps us garden and pulls weeds while her grandson rides. The support has been amazing.”
Crossing the pasture to peek in on the horses, volunteer riding coach Susannah Cripe offers the program more than 30 years of non-profit work with children and adults. Her sense of humor, generous smiles, and laid-back nature allow her to bridge deep connections with the kids.
“Here, the kids are just having fun,” said Cripe, who also pointed out the program takes children as young as 3 or 4 years old. “We’re not cranky ever. We sing songs, and we don’t have to be on a time schedule. If a kid wants to come here and play in the mud, they can play in the mud. We are relaxed and just want the kids to have a good time.”
However, Cripe also highlighted the importance and benefits of the annual Special Olympics.
“The competition is so good for the kids because they have to learn how to interact with the judges, how to enter and exit an arena and deal with larger crowds,” said Cripe. “They gain the confidence of doing all this in front of people.”
Eyes scanning the barn, Curtis is quick to share that the non-profit could not reach kids without the gift of space donated by Bonnie Golino’s farm owner.
“If it wasn’t for Bonnie, we could not do this,” said Curtis, hand resting on her heart. “She is the most genuinely kind person and allows us to use her property so we can do this. She also has two horses of her own that she allows us to use. We are so grateful for her.”
As the rain thickened and lantern lights flickered on through the barn, Madison Curtis – sporting work boots and a pullover sweatshirt – blew hay from the breezeway with a leaf blower. At age 11, she asked for riding lessons from her parents, who believed the activity would provide coping skills for her ADHD. Now at 18, she is studying to become a nurse.
“As a mom of a daughter with ADHD, and someone who does not have that, I had no idea what that meant and had to learn about what was going on in her head,” said Danielle Curtis. “I saw the many benefits of horse riding, but I also connected with the moms because it is the moms who are doing the work. They are the reason their kids are progressing.”
Progress keeps the volunteers eager to drop by the barn and support the kids. Huddled in a circle near the horse stalls, a handful of helpers lit up with warm happiness as they excitedly reminisced about kids at the barn – kids uttering words for the first time, taking first steps, conquering fears of mounting a horse or navigating barn work. They turned to Mason Kramer as he lovingly stroked Donkey and praised him.
Beaming, Mason Kramer’s cheeks blushed. He dreams of professionally training horses one day and living in a barn. He hopes to take up line dancing and never stray too far from Donkey.
Boots clicking across the pavers, he eagerly dashed across the way to scoop up his favorite book, The Adventures of Oti and Valentina, and tote it back over to Donkey.
“He’s the sweetest Donkey ever,” said Mason Kramer. “I like the horses and the people here. I like to read to Donkey. I really like spending time with him.”