Kristine Aguirre humbly says her family’s goodwill steered their way to their innovative family-run charity. “My mom and I were both volunteering with horses and discovered the beautiful system of equine-assisted therapy,” she recalls. The mother-daughter duo traveled across the state of Florida from their home in Flagler Beach to Ocala to earn instructor certification through the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International, the credentialing authority of equine-assisted therapy specialists. Then, in 2008, Kristine and her parents, Helene and Richard Davis, transformed their family farm into Whispering Meadows Ranch, a nonprofit property dedicated to enriching the lives of those with disabilities through recreational and educational equine-assisted programs and activities.
“We grew from one rider, in 2009, to [being at] full capacity today with 35 weekly riders with four horses,” says Kristine, who serves as the program director alongside 35-45 volunteers. The ranch offers therapeutic horseback riding, horsemanship, a work program and school outreach, in addition to special events like the upcoming Fall Harvest Celebration.
“We customize each lesson plan to the client’s needs and establish goals that increase well-being and confidence,” says Kristine. According to Whispering Meadows, research supports that students who participate in therapeutic riding experience physical, emotional and mental rewards. “Horses have a gait similar to humans so hips move as if you were walking, which is important to help individuals with balance, flexibility and strength,” Kristine describes. She says that horses “talk” to people with their bodies and, thus, is a language that people can learn to “speak” regardless of verbal and/or other disabilities. Whispering Meadows has a wheelchair-accessible mounting ramp, in addition to adaptive harnesses, belts and other gear designed to give participants of all abilities safe and enjoyable riding experiences.
Seven-year-old Avery, who has cerebral palsy, has taken lessons at Whispering Meadows for five years. “We go to gain strength, balance and control of Avery’s body. She really likes going out to the ranch because it doesn’t feel like therapy,” says her mother Adrienne Bishop, who describes the Aguirre/Davis family as incredible supporters of all visitors. Avery rides on her stomach and grips the adaptive reins near the horse’s core rather than above the animal’s neck. She does sit-ups, truck rotations and other strengthening exercises with the horse and therapists.
“We customize each lesson plan to the client’s needs and establish goals that increase well-being and confidence.” – Kristine Aguirre
Designed for people with both physical and cognitive special needs, the tranquil ranch grounds are lined with oak trees, green pastures and trails believed to naturally serve as a soothing environment for individuals with sensory disabilities and autism spectrum disorder, paired with the calming engagement of the horses. For example, the mother of an autistic participant testified that on the days her son comes to the ranch, he doesn’t experience involuntary tics.
Whispering Meadows also offers horsemanship. These non-riding lessons incorporate therapeutic human-horse interaction to develop strength, endurance and a sense of accomplishment. “We teach how to care for an animal, like feeding, grooming, exercising the horse and barn management. If the participant is interested in progressing, riding can be a reward that we build up to,” says Kristine. Other ranch amenities ─ used by both schools and individuals ─ include a sensory garden, campfire pit, music and crafts.
Designed for young adults with disabilities, Whispering Meadows also facilitates a work-style training program to enhance basic job skills with a focus on teamwork, responsibility and socialization. Workers learn about barn and garden duties, horse care and proper equipment use. Vito and Thomas, 24-year-old twins with cognitive impairments, have been involved with the work program for five years. “My sons enjoy being a part of a loving family. They have the ability to be who they truly are at the ranch,” says their mother Barbara Quadara of the nurturing Aguirre/Davis family. She adds, “The ranch teaches them to respect one another, and to show patience and love for all things.” Barbara says her sons have hands-on opportunities to learn a lot, such as lawn mowing, gardening, woodworking, horsemanship, horse riding, golf cart driving and more. “I could never express my gratitude and love for all that they have done for my children,” Barbara proclaims.
These programs are made possible thanks to funding from the Kiwanis Club, area foundations, and personal donations, along with volunteer support. You can further the mission by sponsoring a rider or contributing a facility wish list item (land and animal care needs). Visit WhisperingMeadowsRanch.org.