Heartland Horses Harnesses the Power of Community to Provide Therapeutic Riding
by KENZIE CARLSON
photos by SAMANTHA HICKS
Twenty-five years ago, Sandra Kuhn had a vision to provide horseback riding for individuals with disabilities. That vision was brought to life when she founded what came to be Heartland Horses Equine Activities and Learning in Sebring.
Today, even though the location has moved to Avon Park and more horses have been brought in, the organization’s mission remains the same.
“Our mission is to provide individuals with mental, physical, and emotional needs with horseback riding because we believe it carries over to their daily life,” says Sherry Poplaskas, CEO of Heartland Horses.
Though the services offered are still the same as when Kuhn founded the organization, the organization has gone through many changes over the years. Current Heartland Horses riding instructors are certified by the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International, an organization that trains riding instructors on the best way to work with special needs individuals. Heartland Horses presently operates with eight horses and five PATH-certified instructors.
Despite the official certifications and the addition of horses, one thing did not change: Heartland Horses’ therapeutic riding lessons are provided free of charge to individuals and families.
Poplaskas says a majority of the riders they work with are on the autism spectrum.
“Children on the autism spectrum are so very different from each other [but] if we can be consistent with steps in how we do something, and everything is done in a specific order, they’re able to do those steps, remember them, and we see it when they go home,” she explains.
In addition to individuals on the autism spectrum, Heartland Horses also provides services to people with mobility difficulties such as those with cerebral palsy or who have had a stroke.
“We have a lift, so if someone came in in a wheelchair, we would lift them onto the horse,” Poplaskas says. “They would have a leader and two side walkers.”
“By putting them on the back of a horse with a bareback pad, their pelvis does open [and] their legs drop down. The movement of the horse is very similar to the movement of walking, so they feel as if they’re walking” she adds.
Poplaskas began her career as a certified therapeutic riding instructor in New Hampshire for 15 years. She relocated to Florida in 2017 and became a part-time PATH-certified riding instructor at Heartland Horses.
After retiring in 2021, she became the facility’s executive director in 2023.
Beyond providing riding lessons, Heartland Horses is heavily involved in the Central Florida agriculture community, attending and participating in horse shows and presentations at local feed stores as well as hosting its own presentations to spread the word about its mission.
It helps that the organization is a familiar presence at community events.
“We participate in parades, the blueberry festival, and we are in partnership with The Arc next door, so we do a lot of things with them,” Poplaskas says.
The Arc provides day programs, supported employment, group homes, and community services to adults with disabilities in the area. Kathleen Border, director at The Arc, also serves on Heartland Horses’ Board of Directors.
Adults from the Arc programs enjoy riding lessons on Thursdays at Heartland Horses. If an individual is unable to ride, they are able to groom and pet the facility’s miniature horses.
Heartland Horses also hosts free movie nights for the community and serves as an on-the-job training site through a partnership with South Florida State College in Avon Park.
At the center of Heartland Horses’ mission is community, and it relies solely on donations, grants, Highlands County, and volunteers to make its therapeutic riding lessons possible.
To help offset costs, the organization has about 10 riders without special needs who take lessons at the facility for a fee.
To learn more about lessons or volunteer opportunities, contact Heartland Horses at 863-452-0006.