By Léo Azambuja

Healing Horses Kaua‘i volunteer Angie Hill, left, is seen here with two-year-old rider Luna Lani, riding Riddles, and riding instructor Ginger Chapin. Photo by Léo Azambuja

More than two decades ago, a clinical social worker was looking for clever ways to get children to become more involved in their therapy sessions. When she introduced horses to the sessions, she realized the healing power of these graceful animals weighing a thousand pounds or more.

“What we’ve found is that the horses have some kind of magic, that’s what I call it. They heal these kids,” said Karin Stoll, founder of the nonprofit organization Healing Horses Kaua‘i.

The nonprofit’s mission is to “enrich the lives of people of all abilities through Equine Assisted Activities and Therapies (EAAT), improving their physical, cognitive, social and/or emotional well-being,” according to its website.

Stoll said the program takes care of children and adults who have special needs that might be holding them back in their lives. But Healing Horses is also open to every child and adult of pretty much any age who wants to learn how to ride horses.

“We teach everybody, we have many children and adults here without disabilities. They’re a part of the hui that is Healing Horses,” said Stoll, adding the kids mix together whether they have disabilities or not. “They work and ride and play with all kinds of folks.”

Sydney Kleidosty learns how to ride at the Healing Horses arena in Kapa‘a. Photo by Léo Azambuja

Usually, children must be 4 years old to join the program, but they had riders as young as 2 years old who did just fine. Their oldest rider was a 92-year-old cowboy who had a hip replacement.

“He said, ‘I just want to ride one more time,’” Stoll said. “And he did. He was a well-known guy here.”

Stoll started Healing Horses in 2001. Before she introduced horses to therapy sessions, she used to “bribe” the children with fast food. The children, she said, didn’t want to be in therapy inside an office, and had a hard time opening up. To get them engaged, she would take them to fast food restaurants. But when Stoll watched a documentary on the ill effects of fast food, she realized she had to try something else.

“So here I am. I’m trying to help these kids, but I’m poisoning them at the same time,” she said.

That’s when Shiloh came into the picture.

Admittedly “not a horse woman” but “a social worker who fell in love with a horse,” Stoll half-leased a horse named Shiloh when she moved to Kaua‘i many years ago. When fast food was dropped off from her therapy’s menu, she decided to take the kids to meet Shiloh.

“I would take them for their hour, and we would go up to the horse, and they would get on the horse. And then I taught them how to ride the horse. And they started getting better,” Stoll said.

At that time, Stoll was part of a drill team at CJM Stables. She told the team she wanted to expand her practice so more children could benefit from the horses. Three of her teammates agreed, and they started taking more horses on trailers to different venues around the island to treat the children.

“That’s how Healing Horses started, and it just grew from there,” Stoll said.

Ava Hill helps to take care of the miniature horse siblings, Jellybean and Lollipop. Photo by Léo Azambuja

Over the years, she expanded the proposal, hired staff and got volunteers to help. In 2007, Stoll certified Healing Horses as a nonprofit organization, after a year-long process. Today, Healing Horses has 10 horses in the program ran by about 10 half-time employees and 25 volunteers.

Then in 2012, after more than a decade of trailing horses all over Kaua‘i, the nonprofit secured a lease on a 15-acre property owned by Hawai‘i-born actress Bette Midler. The property is on the south end of the Kapa‘a Bypass Road. Now, rather than taking the children to the horses, the children come to see them.

Any given week, 60 to 80 children attend the program. They also do four camps throughout the year. Many volunteers are former participants of the program, and they have an incentive to donate their time — they get a free ride once a week.

Remarkably, when Stoll started the program, she had no idea horse therapy was already a thing in the United States. Four years into her program, she found out about the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association, an organization that has been around since 1969, currently serving about 30,000 individuals with disabilities through equine facilitated therapy and activity programs in more than 650 NARHA program centers in the U.S. and Canada.

Angie Hill walks just behind two-year-old Luna Lani, making sure she is safe while riding Riddles. Photo by Léo Azambuja

“I didn’t know that this was going on anywhere on the Mainland. I just knew I had found the key to these kids talking to me,” Stoll said.

There is something about being on top of a thousand-pound animal that gets the children’s attention, she said. Children with attention deficit hyperactive disorder sense the horse’s power and quickly learn how to focus.

The horses also have power to heal physical disabilities.

“A horse’s gait is the same as human’s gait, it has the same beat as ours. So, if a person gets on a horse, and they have a spinal injury, and the horse’s gait goes, they become the person’s legs,” said Stoll, adding when people with spinal injuries get off the horse, their bodies remember that muscle memory, helping them to improve their walk.

One of the clients at Healing Horses, she said, is a man who was wheelchair-bound after a car wreck. The man is now walking with the help of a walker.

Healing Horses Kaua‘i riding instructor Ginger Chapin, left, and founder Karin Stoll. Photo by Léo Azambuja

The property where Healing Horses operates has gone through many improvements throughout the years, and they were only possible through private and corporate donations, plus countless volunteer hours.

They are still in need of volunteers and materials. Their wish list includes stall panels and gates, maintenance equipment, fencing and many other projects. Stoll said she would love to have an artist paint the container-turned-office to make it look like a barn.

Healing Horses Kaua‘i functions every day because the horses have to eat and be taken care of, but the lessons run from Wednesday to Sunday. Healing Horses has 10 horses on property. Seven are owned by the nonprofit, and the other three are owned by private individuals. All horses participate on the program.

Two of the horses, siblings Jellybean and Lollipop, are miniature horses — tiny, cute horses shorter than a Great Dane. In May, the nonprofit will increase its roster: Jellybean is pregnant.

Visit or call (808) 634-3896 for more information on how to enroll on the program, to volunteer or to make a donation.



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