January 6, 2022
In 1994, Stephanie Keene started Hearts & Horses Equestrian & Therapeutic Riding Center out of a small farm located on Broadturn Road in Scarborough. It didn’t take long before the community caught on to her services, and she became busier than ever. Knowing she needed a much larger, more accommodating space for riders, she purchased a location in Buxton in 1998, where she still resides today.
In an interview series from 2021, Stephanie and three of her clients spoke with us about how riding horses impacted their physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. Originally published as four separate posts on our Facebook and Instagram, you can now read their stories here.
Stephanie Keene, Owner and Operator
“I grew up on a farm where my great grandparents and parents bred horses. I learned to ride at an early age and grew up teaching lessons.
One day, a physical therapist reached out and asked if she could bring her clients with cerebral palsy in for lessons. When I learned that this disorder affects people’s body movements and muscle coordination, I wasn’t sure they would be a good fit to ride. Not because I didn’t want them there, but because I was afraid that it might hurt more than help.
Regardless of my fear, I said yes. We started with three kids on a Saturday morning, and I sat behind them on a horse. She showed me all the different techniques she used for her therapy treatments, and taught me how I could integrate them into horse riding.
These kids went from having tight muscles and poor posture to looking relaxed and sitting up more. I thought ‘How did that happen?’ From that moment, I was hooked, and over time, it just ended up developing into a career.
I love what I do. I get to work here with my family and friends and for that I’m so grateful. Sometimes I tote around my granddaughter when I’m here, and I love that she gets to grow up around horses like I did. I feel so lucky to be working alongside other people who are just as passionate about this cause as I am.
We have a lot of volunteers who help students with grooming, cleaning and other tasks that keep this palace running smoothly. Every day I wake up excited to get to work, and that’s a great feeling to have.”
Candace LaLiberte, Mother of Rider Henry LaLiberte
“We first started taking Henry to his horse riding lessons when he was only 3 years old. He had a lot of sensory processing issues and we believed this sort of therapy would be beneficial to him.
In the beginning, we couldn’t even get him to wear a helmet. So for two weeks, we had to work on that before he could even get on the horse. He’s gotten used to this process now though, thankfully.
He often rides before school, because it helps him with his attention span. He struggles sitting still in class and with inattentiveness in general, but this seems to be working really well for him. When he rides that early in the morning, it sets the stage for how the rest of his day will go.
One of the tests he is asked to do on a regular basis is to hold a plastic egg on a spoon while his instructor, Marley, walks him around in circles. Another test they have him perform is to have him throw a ball into the air and catch it while still on the horse.
Marley is great with him. She’s so patient and can get him to do things he normally can’t. With her there by his side, he has learned the importance of taking instruction. All of these exercises ask him to think critically and focus his attention on an objective. He looks around a lot when he is riding, but that’s something we continue to work on.
Hearts & Horses is a great place for him to be. It’s become such a safe haven for Henry because he is accepted for who he is, and that has helped him to excel. It’s not just the riding that benefits him either. It’s the opportunity to be around animals and to learn the importance of caring for others.
It’s amazing to see how much he’s grown from this experience, and we’re so grateful to have found this place that provides him with all the skills he’ll need to live a happy, fulfilling life.”
Susie Cloutier, Rider
Early one morning, 35-year-old Susie rode her horse through several obstacles, smiling and waving at her mother as she navigated the course. Susie, who has been riding horses since she was a child, has Down Syndrome.
Susie’s mom said that this weekly activity helps provide Susie with socialization opportunities and the chance to learn new things. Recently, Susie underwent heart surgery and had a pacemaker put in. However, her mother said that hasn’t stopped her from getting back to doing what she loves.
“Riding horses gives me more confidence,” said Susie. “I love riding Foxy, she is my favorite horse in the whole world. I first started when I was around 5-years-old. I’ve ridden a lot of different horses. I did fall once, sometimes that happens. But I always get back up. It’s like a real community here and I love it.”
Liz O’Connor, Rider
“This coming January will mark four years since I was in a car accident that almost took my life. I broke my pelvis and many of the other bones in my body. It took a lot of therapy before I was able to walk properly again. I didn’t think I was ever going to be able to get on a horse again, and that was heartbreaking to me.
I always joke with people that it took an accident for me to learn how to be a better rider. After the accident, I had to have pelvic surgery. I was told I’d have to wait a while before getting back on a horse, but I broke the rules.
A week before I was cleared to be riding again, I decided I couldn’t wait any longer. I was hunched over, slow-moving and still in an incredible amount of pain. But I knew this was going to help. I knew my body needed it.
With a trainer at my side, we moved slowly at first, and for the first couple of sessions I only rode for 10 minutes at a time. Riding forced me to practice good posture and build my core strength. Even now, when I walk out of here after riding, my posture is incredible and I’m standing as straight as I can possibly get. My balance will always be in question, even more so since the accident, but I’m doing better. And this is a big reason why.
Before the accident, I was shy and uncertain. But now I feel so much more confident. Before the accident, when I would ride with others, I’d always turn down their invites to ride the trails and would instead ride in circles on my own. Now, I go and ride the trails on my own a couple of times a week. Sometimes, I’ll even lead a group of others riding.
I take a lesson a week, and ride four days otherwise. This is something that I love. I know how to read the horse, I’ve learned so much about myself and I’m surrounded by a lot of wonderful people. It’s good for my body, mind and heart to be able to do this on a regular basis. And I’m so happy to have that second chance.”