In a New Zone, Equestrians Heal

by | Oct 19, 2022 | Features

Photo by Liz Chrisman

There is peace and healing on open land. The newfound fall air breezes as the horses trot, turn and comfort children on their path toward freedom and mobility.

Equestrian Zone, a nonprofit that offers horseback riding, is a special place for humans with developmental disabilities. Canyon Collins, a 24-year-old who has been with Equestrian Zone for more than a decade, ultimately passed his goals set with a physical therapist, with flying colors.

Canyon’s progress was slow for the first few years until he started achieving goals at a faster pace. For nearly seven years, he continued with physical therapy until he could run, jump and balance. “The therapist would say, ‘He’s passing all my goals I have set for him, left and right,’” says Misty Collins, Canyon’s mother. He switched to adaptive riding with Connie Holt, director, after that. Now, he helps take care of the horses on top of his riding. Misty says it brings him joy in a manner he couldn’t experience anywhere else.

“He just feels more confident when he’s around the horses, and he knows it’s something he can handle,” Misty says. “When Equestrian Zone moved locations, at first, I was not so excited about driving farther out, but it’s really not that big of a deal once a week … He just loves it and he would be so sad if he didn’t have Equestrian Zone every week. He didn’t get to do football or basketball or team sports in high school. This is the one thing he can do.”

Their new location in West Dardanelle is a revived opportunity for Connie Holt, director, and the Equestrian Zone riders. Previously located in Russellville, Equestrian Zone only moved in at the Branded by Christ Cowboy Church stables in June, but Connie now says she sees the horizon more clearly.

The upgrades needed on South Frankfort Avenue in Russellville were becoming too much to bear, with COVID-19 impacting Equestrian Zone’s funding. The loss of the nonprofit would be devastating, with its 16 riders and its impact on the community, so Connie wanted another Russellville location to replace it: a location more central, open and free. She checked two out of three boxes when Branded by Christ Church pastor, Donald Walker, presented it to her. Although it was eight miles out of Russellville, she couldn’t refuse.

“I’m just grateful that we had a place that we could offer,” says Donald, the Branded by Christ Church pastor since 2016. “One of the riders actually attends our church and I know from talking to her mom and dad just what it does for her. Just to see her reaction when she sees Connie and the horses is just so worth it.”

The fresh air, the enormous red barn and arena and the roaming areas for the horses, were perfect. Housing horses and a nonprofit isn’t an easy task; they don’t just require arenas, but a therapy room and barn that are costly expenses to add on to any big piece of land.

Branded By Christ Cowboy Church offered it all, and then some.

“Honestly, the Lord led us here, is how that really worked. It’s just been amazing,” Connie says of the new location. “The horses love it out here. They have plenty of room and the riders love it here because it’s just so peaceful. It was meant to be.”

The eight miles out from Russellville is worth it to riders, Connie says. “When a family knows what Equestrian Zone does, it’s not a hard decision to make a little drive,” she says. “The rider benefits and gains privacy and peace from not being in the middle of town.”

Equestrian Zone offers hippotherapy and adaptive riding, both encouraging self-confidence, discipline, and concentration. Hippotherapy combines physical, occupational and speech therapy with a licensed medical professional to help a rider increase motor and sensory skills with the horse’s mobility.

Adaptive riding emphasizes riding skills development, like balance issues, and builds on a rider’s natural ability to improve posture, muscle control, sensory skills as well as awareness and concentration. Horseback riding moves the rider’s body like the human body’s rhythmic movements.

“As the beautiful animals become the legs of riders, they are permitted a sense of freedom and mobility seldom experienced elsewhere in their lives,” the Equestrian Zone website describes riding. “A very special bond is established between horse and rider which encourages unconditional love, trust and self-worth.”

Equestrian Zone children often need support with walking. The horse allows children to have the physical experience of walking in a bareback saddle so children can strengthen their core and upper body. When children get off the horse, their bodies can remember the movements and replicate them.

The horses also challenge children differently than being on the ground and invite them to face their fears and celebrate their feats. Shandy Toland, a physical therapist with Equestrian Zone since its opening in 2006, watches some children hesitate and wrestle with doubts on the horse. By the end of the session, the child not only feels confident, but may pet and kiss the horse, too.

The 10 Equestrian Zone horses — Midget, Charlie, JD, Sugar, Bubba, George, Chakota, Fiera, Fiesta and Fred — are donated and trained to stay calm and provide a sense of lightheartedness.

“They love it,” Toland says. “It gives them a fun area and space to do their work that is so different. They couldn’t do it otherwise.”

The added benefit toward mental health, as well as the upgrade in location, has encouraged Connie to expand her training and her employees. Currently, Equestrian Zone is seeking psychologists and mental health professionals willing to partner and work on the link between mental health and horseback riding.

Combining the breeze of fresh air, exercise and an open road removed from daily life, improves moods and decreases stress. The added psychotherapy will allow the organization to expand its services further with a veteran’s program. The program will give six-week sessions and courses dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide prevention.

Connie is also seeking more training for herself and a cover for the arena, so Equestrian Zone can still serve all, no matter the weather or location. To donate towards the covered arena or sponsor a child, visit

For children without disabilities, the range of play opportunities remain unlimited. The Equestrian Zone provides a home and support system while building long-lasting progress and self-confidence for children with developmental disabilities. For moms like Misty Collins, the eight mile drive out towards Centerville remains worth it.

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