This is part 3 of 4 in a series of posts about New Horizon Ranch, an organization in Rantoul, KS, which works to enrich lives through equine assisted activities and therapies. You can read the story of New Horizon Ranch founders, Brian and Joy Miller, here, or the story of NHR employee, Jessica Freund, here.
When Molly Witker was only ten years old, a horse threw her from its back and launched in her a lifelong fear of horses.
“I was a chicken little kid, just a shy, skinny chicken little kid,” she said. “The horse wanted to do what all horses want to do, and I couldn’t control it. Ever since then I’ve been terribly, horribly afraid of horses.”
Later in her life, when she met her husband, Don Long, and learned that he had once owned a horse, she was terrified, figuring that if he ever decided he wanted to own one again, she would have to run away to another state.
Don and Molly’s love story is not a typical one. They met in 2007 through eHarmony.
“I was looking for the love of my life,” Don said, “and I found her.”
They began emailing back and forth frequently. When Don was on his way to Kansas City from his home in Emporia, Kansas for a date with another of his eHarmony contacts, he gave Molly a call. He asked if they could meet, and as they talked, they realized that Molly was literally a quarter mile ahead of him on the highway.
They pulled over into a corporate parking lot, and as Don walked toward Molly’s car, she jumped out and threatened to call the police.
“She didn’t know if I was a stalker or what,” he said.
“Actually, I knew he was a stalker,” she said, smiling. “I mean, really . . . what are the odds?”
“I pursued her after that,” he continued, “but it took me a long time to get her into the boat—I was fishing a long time. That was 2007, and we just got married last year.”
As Don neared retirement, he began looking for volunteer opportunities to keep him busy after he left his job as a nuclear engineer. He found out about therapeutic riding and began volunteering in the evenings at New Horizon Ranch (NHR), as well as another therapeutic riding organization nearby.
Molly was still deathly afraid of horses, but she began attending NHR events with Don and eventually got up the courage to start touching and petting the horses.
As a marriage and family therapist, she knew all about talking to people who suffered from anxiety, and she had walked many a client through the process of facing his or her fears.
“Just breathe through it. You’ll get through it. Face your fear and do it anyway,” she would tell them.
“I was just a big fraud,” she said. “Here I am with this number one fear in my life, and I could have gone to my grave without dealing with it.”
After Don had volunteered for a while at NHR, he talked Molly into taking a riding lesson there. She had met Brian and Joy, the founders, and trusted them, so she knew she would be safe, but facing her fear of horses was still not easy. This past spring, however, she did exactly that and has now taken five lessons.
“I know now what it’s like to have a tremendous fear, a terror of something, and face that fear,” she said. “I can talk to my clients now about being afraid.”
Don, meanwhile, has enjoyed playing the dual roles of supportive husband and volunteer at the ranch. Most often, he volunteers as a side walker, the person who walks beside the horse to make sure the rider is safe and comfortable. As a side walker, he loves witnessing the kids’ progress over time, both physically and emotionally.
He tells of how a friend from work brought his two daughters who have Down Syndrome to NHR, and as a result of riding, they developed enough strength in their core and leg muscles to compete in the 50-yard dash at their Special Olympics competitions.
Another time, his neighbors brought their young daughter to camp, and when she mounted her horse, she beamed and shouted, “I. Love. This. Horse!”
And he recalls the time when the little boy he was walking beside had a seizure, and all he could do was hold him and carry him to his mom.
“I’m such a softie. I’m going to get tears in my eyes just thinking about it. . . . Some of them are fighting such terrible battles—anything from cerebral palsy to Down Syndrome to developmental delays,” he said. “We don’t know as volunteers all that is going on in their lives. All I know is their first name and whatever I need to know in terms of keeping them safe.”
Don and Molly have been amazed at the NHR instructors’ abilities to know when to push and when not to push their students. One time a young boy was crying because he was so scared he wouldn’t be able to control the horse. Don says he wouldn’t have known what to do, but Joy Miller looked at the boy and said, “I know you can do this.” And a few moments later, he conquered his fear and continued riding.
As she has worked past her fear of horses, Molly has developed an awe for what NHR enables people to accomplish.
“Horses are huge—they’re bigger than any of us,” she explained. “To have the ability to climb on in a little piece of leather on a 1,200 pound animal and have it obey you, I think it’s just stunning.”
Don, meanwhile, has developed a passion for helping the kids NHR serves.
“I’ve always kind of been for the underdog, and I don’t know if anybody’s more underdog than these kids. They’re fighting an uphill battle the whole way,” he said. “One of the parents said it better than I ever could. ‘There are so many doors that are closed to our children that when we see one open a crack, we want to go through it.’ Well, at New Horizon it’s not open a crack—the barn door is wide open.’”
“It’s the kind of place that resonates with me,” he continued, “because it’s all about the underdog, and doing the best you can with what you’ve got, and growing far beyond what you thought you could do. I think that’s a message of hope and one I want to spread.”