Weatherford Star-Telegram

At this therapy center, riders of all ages connect with horses. And they’re all stars.

Hailey Perkins rides Stumpy while trainer Ginger Ferguson leads the way during an equine therapy session at Stars and Strides Stables near Weatherford.
Hailey Perkins rides Stumpy while trainer Ginger Ferguson leads the way during an equine therapy session at Stars and Strides Stables near Weatherford. Special to the Star-Telegram

Because everyone deserves to be a star, if only for a while.

Hence, the name of Stars and Strides Stables near Weatherford, a place where mentally and physically challenged individuals from infant to elderly can connect with horses in a therapeutic setting.

“I consider our riders to be stars, and our goal is for them to make strides in life through the partnership of a horse,” said Teresa Miller, who owns the facility with her husband, David.

Teresa and David opened Stars and Strides in 2013. Their daughter, Courtney, has battled numerous disabilities since birth. Now, at age 27, she has overcome them all to become a national and world champion in Equestrians With Disabilities competition.

“We put her in equine therapy when she was about 10 years old, and not only did it help her physically, it was great for her self-esteem,” David said.

As Courtney began to excel in equine therapy and competition, Teresa became a certified instructor. At the time Courtney was receiving therapy in Flower Mound, and one day after battling the usual relentless traffic to get to class, Teresa had a revelation.

“She said, ‘I don’t think there’s a place in Parker County that offers this,’” David recalled. “She reminded me that we’ve been blessed with 20 acres, and that we should give something back with it. That’s how we got started.”

Stars and Strides began with a couple of students. Now, they have around 50 each week who eagerly await their time working with and riding a horse. Classes are Monday through Thursday, with times varying, depending on the weather.

Any person can participate with a doctor’s permission. David said they receive referrals from area hospitals and doctors. Students come from all over North Texas, particularly from west Fort Worth and beyond, including Parker, Wise, Hood and Tarrant counties.

“I love horses. That’s my life, my favorite thing,” said 20-year-old Hannah Harley of Millsap, also an award winning rider who survived being shaken severely and almost dying as a young child.

She then adds with a heart-melting chuckle, “But I’m not good at bareback. I just don’t ride like riding bareback.”

Hannah’s grandmother and guardian, Joann Harley, said, “She has three loves: baseball, the beach and horses. Doctors told us she would never do anything a normal person does, but she’s just amazing, especially when it comes to working with horses.”

The Millers take several participants such as Courtney and Hannah to a handful of competitions each year, including Special Olympics. However, most are there for the simple enjoyment of connecting with a horse.

For example, Hailey loves riding Stumpy. Kiernan runs up to give her favorite horse, Doc, a hug.

“To think, this huge animal, they get on it and can control it, it’s pretty amazing,” Teresa said. “They get so excited. They can’t wait to go back to school and tell everyone.”

The youngest at Stars and Strides is 2 years old. The oldest is 67. Each rider is given a set of goals, which can be as simple as sitting in the saddle to more challenging feats that involve riding independently.

“We really have no age limits,” David said. “We use a lot of cognitive things, such as petting the horse. They get the feel of the horse, and it gives the horse reassurance, creating a bond.”

Bryanna O’Keeffe, a volunteer at Stars and Strides, said horses provide an escape..

“When you’re on a horse, you have to focus completely. It allows you to get away from whatever else is going on in your life,” she said.

Brad Cockburn of Weatherford has two daughters with autism, 20-year-old Taylor and 16-year-old Baylee. He said he looks forward to the weekly classes as much as they do.

“It calms Taylor, and it gives Baylee (who is more functional) a sense of responsibility,” he said. “It’s not like there is a whole lot else for them to do, and they enjoy this so much. I make an effort to be here every time because I love it too.

“Baylee also rides in competition and has several awards to show for it, but she doesn’t even care about them. She’ll get one, give it to us and say, ‘I want to go ride again.’”

Takwyla Ivory, 20, of Fort Worth, a special needs student, is in her second year at Tarrant County College. Her mother, Kathy, credits her work with horses as a large part of her inspiration.

“Her self-esteem is more confident. It’s grown her as an individual,” Kathy said. “She’s found out that yes she can do this, and she’s going to do this, and do it very well.”

Every session at Stars and Strides ends with a trail ride through the nearby woods. On certain holidays, such as Halloween and Christmas, the Millers will line it with prizes to be found along the way.

“It’s one of their favorite things,” he said. “They all get so excited when it’s time to hit the trail.”

Stars and Strides holds several fundraisers each year, including a popular golf tournament at SugarTree Golf Course. They also participate in a local Bachelor and Bachelorette of the Year competition. In all, they raised almost $50,000 last year, David said.

But there is always the need for more help. For example, they could use another truck to haul a second horse trailer. Scholarships are always needed. They could even use some help with hay.

“It’s gotten so expensive,” David said.

And volunteers are always in demand. David said it’s not a must to know a lot about horses, but it is a must to care about helping others.

“We have a training program with the horses. We can’t train to care for people,” he said.

While both David and Teresa are closer to 60 than 50, they have no plans to retire anytime soon, not as long as the smiles continue to bring them joy.

“We’re not going anywhere,” Teresa said. “As soon as we get tired, we’ll have a rider get excited and we get rejuvenated.”

For example, she recalled a young lady recently who looked at her and said, “This is the best moment of my life.”

“I just thought, ‘OK, yeah, I can keeping doing this,’” Teresa said. “At least another 10 years.”

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