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Dallas-based Equine Therapy Organization Breaks Ground On New Facility, Plans Growth

In August, an equestrian therapeutic riding nonprofit broke ground on a new covered arena.

Equest launched in 1981 in the backyard of Co-founder Evelyn Zembrod alongside Susan Schwartz and was the first equestrian therapeutic riding center in Texas.

As the organization grew, it expanded from Zembrod’s backyard and ultimately moved to a third location in 2014 at the Texas Horse Park along the Trinity River Corridor, which is funded by the city of Dallas. Equest eventually consolidate operations to the southeast Dallas location in 2017.

Equest operates various programs, including therapeutic horsemanship, hippotherapy for both physical and occupational therapy, counseling with both personnel and therapy horses, equine assisted learning, community outreach programs and a free-of-charge program for veterans called Hooves for Heroes. 

Both prior to 2014 and now, it has been a challenge to develop not just the horse park, but the new arena, which has been named after late businessman and philanthropist Al Hill, Jr.

The development challenges stemmed from Equest's physical location: The horse park falls within the Great Trinity Forest. The forest is the largest urban forest in the United States, covering 6,000 acres. While the execution of the Trinity River Corridor Project's larger vision is still ongoing, it is anticipated to span 10,000 acres, making it the largest urban forest in the world. 

Construction began on the arena, designed by Brownstone Crown Architecture, on Aug. 5, kicking off with 500 trucks worth of dirt that raised the ground at least seven feet to protect the new arena from water drainage damage.

ML Gray Partnership is constructing the 125-by-218 square-foot arena project. The first phase of construction is set to be done in early 2020; the second phase does not have a delivery date yet.

Equest is currently in the quiet phase of their capital campaign seeking to raise an additional $1.6 million to the already supplemental $1.4 million raised. The nonprofit's CEO, Lili Kellogg, said with the donation from the Hills was made in 2014 and building costs have risen since then.

The arena will be operation prior to completion of the second phase, but once the second phase is complete the arena will include a multi-purpose classroom, bathroom and storage facility.

Currently, Equest has been struggling with its lack of space. During the weekends, its facilities are packing one covered arena with 10 separate classes, resulting in limited space for each. The new facility is expected to provide more support for more clients and shorten their waiting list.

“There are over 80,000 people in Dallas living with a disability. Equest’s equine facilitated programs have proven to be a unique and effective way to provide hope and healing through the human horse connection for those with disabilities and challenges,” said Kellogg. “With the much-needed arena, we will be able to help more people.” 

With the new facility, Equest is targeting to have a 33 percent increase in therapeutic horsemanship programs, 100 percent in hippotherapy programs, 140 percent in equine-facilitated counseling, 120 percent in equine-assisted learning, and 41 percent in Hooves for Heroes. 

“I grew up very passionate about horses…I was horse-crazy,” said Kellogg, who has been with the organization for 25 years. “What I love about this industry is you get to combine your love of horses with helping people on a daily basis.” 

One of the benefits of equine therapy is based on how similar both humans and horses walk. According to Kellogg, both species walk in multidimensional movement where the pelvis rocks forward and back, shifts side to side and rotates. When a human rides a horse, the human’s body moves with the horse and forces the body to move in typical patterns. Additionally, this strengthens the core and promotes balance.

“(It) doesn’t matter to them if you have one leg instead of two, if you can’t read a sentence, if you're non-verbal. As long as you treat them with consistency and appropriate actions and behavior, you will get a relationship with a sentient being,” said Kellogg. “Horses can teach you to regulate motions, be present in the moment, (learn) appropriate behavior and how your behavior and actions influence others.” 

The facility currently operates with eight instructors, four therapists, three counselors, administrators and over 400 volunteers. However, this doesn’t include the 38 horses on the property, eight of which being miniature horses.

Costs for programs – excluding Hooves for Heroes and Equest's community outreach programs – can range from $500 to $650. This charge covers a once-a-week session for 10 weeks. Hippotherapy sessions run at $180 per hour, while a counseling rate is, on average, $95 for a one-hour session. 

While most of horses are owned by Equest, some are donated from various owners for certain periods of time.  

Texas leads the nation in its horse population of slightly over a million horses and ranks second for states the most off of the horse economy; one being California. 

Since Equest launched, it has relied on a volunteer program to assist in its operations. Volunteers are able to start as early as the age of 14 and are not required to have former experience with horses. Volunteer opportunities include direct contact with clientele as either a leader or side walker for Hippotherapy sessions, working with events, horse and facility care, and in-office database entry work. 

Kellogg mentioned that for the volunteers serve a very important safety purpose for their clientele. 

“Volunteers provide a safety net for our riders so they’re not going independent until they are ready to. Independence is very important to us to develop with our clients as quickly and as safely as possible. It also builds a great community. Our volunteers and clients develop lifelong friendships and relationships,” said Kellogg. 

For Equest, the organization is striving to build a strong community to combat the isolation many differently-abled individuals have and make sure people know they have a family of not just people, but horses. 

“My father suffered from a spinal cord injury in 2003, so the arena was one of the most exciting projects for my dad. He always loved horses and wanted to give other hope and support and believed in Equest's mission,” said Heather Washburne, daughter of Al Hill, Jr. “People always say that my dad was an investor in businesses, but he was also an investor in people, to make their lives better, and it make me happy to know how many people will be support by the new AL Hill, Jr Arena.” 

This article, written by David Ajamy, originally appeared in Dallas Business Journal on October 1, 2019.

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