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Horses offer hope to riders in need

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Hope Equestrian in Eagle Point has seen fundraising drop off at a time when riders need their horse time the most

EAGLE POINT – Thirty years after being diagnosed at age 27 with multiple sclerosis, Talent resident Karen McCoy says her weekly horseback riding time with a quarter-haflinger cross named Zack has changed her life in ways she could never have imagined.

Aside from providing a much-needed break from being in a wheelchair, McCoy said, the horse’s gait is a comfort to her body and helps her to minimize loss of muscle tone.

McCoy is one of four-dozen riding students – a mix of adults and children with varying physical, emotional or learning disabilities – who ride at Hope Equestrian, a nonprofit founded in the late 1980s.

While the pandemic impacted the number of riders Hope Equestrian could have during 2020, staff and volunteers put out a cry for help this week with available scholarship funding at dangerously low levels.

At a time when riders need the emotional and physical benefits gleaned from horseback riding more than ever, an annual auction that funds a chunk of the organization’s budget yielded less than half its usual profits.

Prior to COVID-19 the organization had also been raising money to eventually build a permanent home – after years of bouncing between property leases – but the current focus, said executive director Angie Ballard, is to keep students covered for valuable riding time.

With most students on scholarship due to limited income or extensive medical costs, Ballard said, a large percentage of Hope riders are covered via the annual fundraiser and monthly donations.

“Basically, how Hope works financially is that there are riders that pay in full, but a majority of our riders get at least a partial scholarship,” she said.

“A lot of those are almost full scholarships so money to pay for those students comes from grants and fundraisers like Denim and Diamonds.”

Ballard said she expected last year’s Denim and Diamonds fundraiser to fall short due to COVID-19 shutdowns.

“The auction generates 25% to 30% of our annual income. Year before last, we raised $80,000. Last year, which we expected to be lower because COVID had shut everything down, we still managed to raise $67,000,” Ballard said.

“I think this year is going to be closer to $30,000, which is pretty concerning.”

Ballard said the student count had been down from about 70 to under 50, but recent weeks have seen an uptick in riders returning for horse time. McCoy, 57, said she was hard pressed to miss her time with her favorite horse, pandemic or not.

Had she not started riding at Hope five years ago, still then relying on a leg brace and canes, McCoy said her current physical struggles would be more profound.

“I managed my MS for over two decades with good diet and exercise. I bicycled, kayaked, that kind of thing. It became progressive about 10 years ago and got much worse about five years ago,” she said.

“After I started taking adult education classes in Ashland, including one on horse therapy, a friend of mine who volunteered at Hope told me how to get started. I was unsure because I was in such depression and had been allergic to horses my whole life, but when I called and spoke to Angie, it all just fell into place and it changed my life.”

McCoy said a previous allergy to horses – and a darkening depression – disappeared as quickly as she made her way atop a horse.

“The first time I got to ride, it just felt like absolute heaven to my body. My legs were able to hang down. I could feel muscles in my mid-section and my back straightened up. Emotionally, I was overcome by how good it felt, and it has become the most important form of exercise and movement in my life,” McCoy said.

“It gives me a chance to move in a way that I can’t for the rest of the week in a wheelchair, and I’ve been able to gain a little more balance in my midsection. It’s given me … well, hope.”

McCoy said seeing the number of students impacted by horseback riding, she was hopeful that the community would help fill the funding gap. Ballard said she would fundraise as much as necessary to maintain her commitment to students most in need.

“We will continue our mission no matter what, even if it means running additional fundraisers. If we’re not able to raise enough money, it could shrink our operational capacity, but we plan to do everything in our power not to have that happen,” Ballard said.

“What we provide is more important than ever for both our kids and adult riders. A lot of them are more at risk for COVID so they’re not able to be out and about much. Hope is their safe zone and their lifeline,” she said.

“It is ironic that at a time when our riders need this even more that we would have such a drop in funds. We’re just getting guidelines worked out for those riders to feel safe coming back. It would be pretty devastating to have to stop again, and not for COVID but because we ran out of funding.”

To donate online, see www.hopeequestrian.com.

Reach freelance writer Buffy Pollock by e-mail, buffyp76@yahoo.com

Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Karen McCoy guides a horse through an obstacle trail at HOPE Equestrian Center in Eagle Point.
Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Karen McCoy rides a horse at HOPE Equestrian Center in Eagle Point.
Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Tim Womack instructs Karen McCoy at HOPE Equestrian Center.
Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Karen McCoy says riding helps her deal with MS.
Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Karen McCoy leads a horse to an obstacle trail at HOPE Equestrian.