Stable of Hopes and Dreams
At a Maryland therapeutic riding center, breakthroughs come one gait at a time
What really lifts Kimberly Hopkins’ spirits is when she thinks about a young woman who spoke her first words astride a well-mannered quarter horse.
The woman was a student at Positive Strides Therapeutic Riding Center, which Hopkins operates on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, and was nonverbal to that point in her life.
Her face beamed and her eyes welled up as she mounted the horse. Happiness filled the air around her as Hopkins softly implored her to move her ride forward.
“And then she said, ‘Walk,’ Hopkins remembers. “She said her first words on a horse. Her father cried.”
A single word, abetted by a gentle 1,200-pound animal, can change a life.
“I tell people when you do this kind of work, you don’t become rich,” Hopkins says. “You become enriched.”
Sitting on a 50-acre farm just north of Preston, Md., Positive Strides represents a step ahead — make that a gait ahead — for clients who deal with physical, developmental, emotional and cognitive impairments.
The idea is to tap the inner calm of the center’s seven horses — they are wizened senior citizens, by horse years — to build greater confidence, self-esteem and life-coping skills for riders ranging from preschoolers to senior citizens.
In various guises and places, Positive Strides has been doing that since 1981, most recently conducting 1,150 rides a year with the help of more than 9,000 hours from dozens of volunteers, plus Hopkins, equal parts administrator, teacher, confessor and cheerleader.
“When it’s up and running, it is a lot of work, but it’s wonderful work,” Hopkins says. “Almost every day, there’s one little thing that happens and makes you say, ‘You know what? This is worth all of the stress and worry.’”
NO neigh-SAYERS HERE
Positive Strides started on a small scale nearly 40 years ago as an offshoot of a 4-H group. Over the years, the organization, first known as Talbot Special Riders, expanded into a full-time operation at a site in Easton.
A lifelong horsewoman, Hopkins volunteered with Talbot Special Riders, later spending a dozen years as a certified riding instructor with the group and assuming the duties of executive director in 2006.
A few years ago, training moved to Preston, to a farm she owns with daughter Ashley. At the behest of the center’s board, the organization changed its name in 2019 to Positive Strides, which better reflects its mission.
The organization has three core areas: therapeutic riding, a mental health and wellness program, and hippotherapy, which involves licensed professionals outside of a clinical setting who use horses as tools to engage motor skills and cognitive systems.
Hopkins outlines goals for all riders, who come individually or from group homes, schools, community-based programs, and physician and therapist referrals on the Eastern Shore. The targets might be as simple as standing in stirrups for 10 seconds or maneuvering a horse through a three-obstacle course. Or maybe just grabbing the reins. One of Positive Strides’ great success stories is a woman, likely in her 50s, with communication issues. She has come around to gently shaking reins up and down when she is on a horse and gets the “walk on” command.
“That was huge,” Hopkins says. “I really think she has a grasp of the ‘walk on.’ That’s how she does it. She couldn’t say ‘walk,’ but she always says it with her reins.”
Bella was destined to be horse meat.
The sleekly muscled, 20-year-old Percheron was up for auction by the pound, which meant she was headed to a grisly end when a rescue group in Salisbury took her in.
Now, she’s the star of the show, grazing gently in a grassy pasture that adjoins Statum Road in between tending to the needy.
“She’s truly the heart of our program,” Hopkins marvels. “She was going to go and be food. And we are so lucky that they got her and that we were able to get her because she is an angel. She is the most tolerant, steadfast force I have ever seen.”
The other horses had previous lives, as well. Choptank Electric Cooperative, a strong supporter of Positive Strides, sponsors Reds, a chestnut quarter-horse gelding in his mid-20s. Pumpkin Patch was a guest horse for fox hunts; the 20-something likes to be in your face, but is an easy rider.
No matter the level of need, all the horses have an uncanny knack to adapt to their riders.
“The horses have this innate sense that I cannot explain for the life of me, how they know what each of these individuals need. But they just know,” Hopkins says.
That’s essential because training traditional riders and students with disabilities could not be more different; the word patience might as well be etched into each saddle.
“With a disability rider, you may be so thrilled to see a slight movement as the rider tells the horse to walk on,” Hopkins says. “A lot of times, they may have a delay in processing information and you might have to wait quite a while for them to process what we’re asking them to do.”
On an afternoon last March, the farm was bustling. A group of about 10 at-risk youths from Dorchester County was getting an introduction to equine life.
They were part of a “Time to Ride” pilot after-school program that Hopkins developed with support from Harvesting Hope, a youth and family services organization in nearby Cambridge, the Maryland Horse Council and a grant from the United Way of the Lower Eastern Shore.
Current and retired schoolteachers were on hand for in-class instruction before riders got hands-on experience with horses. During horse-leading exercises, Hopkins spotted one teen, hoodie pulled low, who was clearly uninterested in communicating. “He had this huge smile. It did my heart good because even though he didn’t want anyone to see it, he was loving it,” she says.
Then COVID-19 hit. The class is on hold and the center has taken a hit. An annual bicycle challenge that raises $20-30,000 was scrapped, and rider fees are down. The horses still must eat to the cost of $60,000 annually; many require special diets because of their age.
Hopkins and the center’s board have been working on a limited reopening plan for the fall, knowing services will be more important than ever. “We feel like with COVID and so many other things being uncertain in the world today, we will have a larger need to offer more of our mental health and wellness programs,” she says.
Until then, she thinks of the ending of the first “Time to Ride” class, when one girl lined up on the bus to return home.
“She got up the steps, stopped, ran back to me and my teacher friends, and gave us all hugs. So that was a wonderful way to end that first session.”
For more information, visit positivestridescenter.org.
In the open, grassy fields behind Lonesome Dove Equestrian Center, an abiding respect and insight rivals any understanding that you’ll find in a physician’s antiseptic office.
Call it horse-patient confidentiality.
“Emotional and physical communication passes between our veterans and the horses,” says Karen Ylimaki, secretary-treasurer of the eight-member board that oversees the equine therapy center in Powhatan, Va.
“If something is bothering you, go complain to a horse. They don’t judge,” she says.
Unpaid and dedicated volunteers run Lonesome Dove, a nonprofit organization that relies completely on donations. The center is dedicated to meeting the mental, physical and emotional needs of veterans in Central Virginia through equestrian activities.
The quiet 7-acre horse farm, served by Southside Electric Cooperative, is where heroes come to heal.
From a loving nuzzle to a soft nicker, horse lovers will tell you that the majestic creatures have a keen awareness — a sixth sense — of what is around them. “These horses are incredible animals, so loving and gentle and intuitive,” Ylimaki explains.
For example, Trouble, a miniature horse, might be a mischievous creature worthy of his name, but he’s also sensitive and loving with the veterans. “He will stand there for hours with them, as long as they need him. He lets them brush him or love on him. It’s a beautiful thing to watch,” Ylimaki says.
But when he’s not helping veterans heal, Trouble is usually trying to figure out how to break out of his stall. “Once, he figured out how to open his stall door and he broke into the place where we store hay and had himself a little feast” she says with a laugh.
Moving Moments Bring Purpose
The veteran stared into the eyes of the horse he was about to mount. The horse’s dark brown eyes were gentle, yet seemed to bore into the young man’s soul.
After the young man lost both of his legs in Iraq, the veteran’s father brought him to Lonesome Dove as a “last-ditch effort” to use “horsepower” to heal his son.
The moment was packed with emotion — and hope.
Ylimaki vividly recalls how three volunteers helped the veteran. “We were all standing there waiting to see how he would react. Then, all of a sudden, he let out a whoopin’ holler. ‘I feel like I have my legs again!’ he excitedly said.
“I looked over at his father and he had tears in his eyes. I remember thinking, ‘Yes! This is what this is all about!’ It was a beautiful moment to experience. And I have so many stories like that.”
After moving with her veteran husband from Chicago to rural Virginia 17 years ago, Ylimaki says she knows why veterans come to this special spot. “It feels like home. And we’re all like a big family here,” she explains.
Clint Arrington, a stonemason who died three years ago, was the driving force behind the creation of Lonesome Dove. The equestrian center opened in 2008 and Arrington wanted it to be a safe place where veterans could build resilience through equine-assisted therapy.
“Clint would have been so proud of the fact that, to date, we have put 3,500 veterans on a horse,” Ylimaki says. The oldest was a 104-year-old woman. “She was a pistol; she was awesome,” Ylimaki gushes.
Veterans who visit the center don’t have to mount or ride the horses. Sometimes, they just like to help clean used tack, groom the horses, or sit and watch them. Veterans come to the center from all over the country, but primarily on buses through Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center and Sitter & Barfoot Veterans Care Center, both located in Richmond, Va.
Richard “Red” Rose, member of Southside Electric Cooperative, has been on the board at Lonesome Dove for five years. He humbly takes credit for simply “putting the men and women on the horses.”
But it’s much more than physically lifting veterans; he helps lift spirits and bolster self-confidence as well. “Some of the veterans are nervous about getting on a horse and I just keep gently encouraging them and calming their fears until, before you know it, they’re on a horse and they fall in love with it.”
An especially memorable veteran, whom Rose affectionately nicknamed “Mr. Washington,” left quite an impact.
“He was blind and had lost one of his legs. He’d always show up with a Washington Redskins’ shirt, hat and gloves,” Rose remembers, chuckling at the memory. “And he would shoot a basketball off the horse. He did that for years and then he lost the other leg. He would sit up on the horse and proudly sing gospel songs and everyone loved to listen to him.”
Rose says it feels good to be able to help military veterans. “To watch someone overcome something and be a part of it is really special,” he says.
Better to Give than to Receive
Steve Nelson, a retired teacher from West Point, has been president of Lonesome Dove’s board since 2012 and sees the center as a way to give back.
But while giving back, there is so much for volunteers to “receive” through witnessing remarkable success stories.
One 19-year-old veteran, originally from Oklahoma, was pale and weak when he arrived at Lonesome Dove, Nelson remembers. He rolled in on his wheelchair with a spiked helmet covered with signatures of other veterans.
“He had a severe brain injury and he wore the colorful helmet to protect his head, because they had removed half of his skull,” Nelson explains.
The young veteran was determined to ride a horse. And he did, Nelson says. But as the veteran waited for lunch, Nelson was concerned about the young man’s deteriorating physical health.
“He was relaxing under a shade tree when he fell out of his wheelchair and onto the ground. I saw how frail he was, and I just didn’t think he would make it,” Nelson says.
But a budding friendship with an older paraplegic veteran from McGuire would be just the push of encouragement the young man needed.
“Before you know it, they were both out of wheelchairs and walking with walkers, and then by the time they left McGuire, they were both walking on their own. If you had told me that was possible when I saw that young man laying helpless in the grass under the shade tree, I wouldn’t have believed it for a second.”
Those are the kinds of success stories, says Nelson, that motivate people to want to come back and volunteer at Lonesome Dove.
It’s not just the veterans who experience success stories at Lonesome Dove. Nelson purchased Tonto, a 20-year-old Morgan horse who came from a kill pen in North Carolina. Tonto was severely underweight and sick at the time. As his health grew more stable, Tonto proved to be a “terror.”
“Everyone kept thinking he wasn’t going to make it and be successful, but after patiently working with him for six or seven months, he’s now as sweet as can be,” says Nelson, who loaned Tonto to Lonesome Dove for use in the veteran-therapy programs.
He says, “We helped Tonto heal, so he could help heal some veterans. It’s a neat success story, but from a different perspective. The veterans love Tonto.”
Brad Furr, vice president of operations for Southside Electric Cooperative, occasionally volunteers at Lonesome Dove. Furr first heard about the work of the center during a SEC employee meeting that referred to a financial donation from the cooperative.
“The work they do with veterans really touched me, personally, so I wanted to get more involved and invite my coworkers at SEC to do so, as well,” he explains. Along with several other SEC employees, Furr recently volunteered at Lonesome Dove. “It feels good knowing that you’re a part of something so great.”
Horses for Heroes Ride
Sam Reedy of Mineral, Va., a member of Rappahannock Electric Cooperative and the 25-member Steel Warriors Veterans Motorcycle Club, dedicates his time every year on Labor Day weekend to help raise funds to support the center’s work.
Steel Warriors Veterans Motorcycle Club is a nonaffiliated organization of active duty, former military and military dependents. “We have a motorcycle ride to Lonesome Dove, where there are vendors, a silent auction, lunch, live music and door prizes. The whole event benefits Lonesome Dove because we support the work they do and the impact they make. We call it the Horses for Heroes Ride and this year, on Sept. 5, will be our seventh annual fundraiser for them,” he says.
Reedy, a Vietnam veteran, has volunteered at the equestrian center and calls it a very satisfying experience. “It’s nice to be able to talk to other veterans, and I think Lonesome Dove gives veterans encouragement and builds their self-esteem and confidence,” he says.
“The impact made by this equestrian center is huge.”
For more information, visit ldequestriancenter.com.
The Tuskegee Airman
Baugh fought two fronts: the Nazis and segregation
Fame came late in life to Howard L. Baugh Sr. It took half-a-century after World War II ended before Baugh and his fellow fighter pilots in the Tuskegee Airmen became well-known, thanks to an HBO movie.
Fame came late. But Baugh was ahead of his time. With the airmen, he helped to establish a new level of air dominance in the European theater with successes that laid the foundation for desegregation of the military in 1948.
“It just goes to show that ordinary people given the proper training and opportunity can do extraordinary things,” Baugh said in a 2008 interview, a few months before he died at 88.
A native of Petersburg, Va., Baugh signed up for the Army Air Corps, now the U.S. Air Force, after graduating from Virginia State College in 1941. He trained at Tuskegee, a historically black university in Alabama that churned out 996 pilots between 1940 and 1946, deploying 355 of them to war.
“Before 1941, there were no African Americans in the Army Air Corps, and that’s the way they wanted it,” Baugh said. “They didn’t think we had what it took to operate a machine as complicated as an aircraft.”
The heroic African American squadron proved otherwise. Known for the distinctive red tails on their fighters, they provided support for all-white bomber crews, and never lost an assignment. “They had no idea their red escorts were black,” Baugh said of the bomber pilots. “We escorted bombers on over 200 missions and never lost one we escorted.”
Baugh served in North Africa, Sicily and Italy, flying 136 combat missions and shooting down a German fighter plane over Italy with the 99th Pursuit Squadron in 1944.
“It was scary,” he said. “It all depended on what we were doing as to how scary it was, but it was really scary when we were getting shot at.”
For his 16 months in combat, Baugh was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters, among a bevy of medals. He retired as a lieutenant colonel in 1967 and worked for Kodak for many years. A bronze statue of Baugh is on display at the Black History Museum & Cultural Center of Virginia.
Baugh’s sons, Richard and Howard Jr., keep the flames burning by addressing civic and school groups on the role of the Tuskegee Airmen with a callout to their dad, as at a recent presentation at the Virginia War Memorial.
“I accompanied him one time to do a talk like this and somebody asked him, ‘What do you think your greatest accomplishment was?’” Howard Jr. says. “And he said, ‘My three sons.’”
For more on Baugh, visit hbc-tai.org.