Testimonials from HETRA Participants and Volunteers
Jack's HETRA Story
Aaron: “Jack has been riding at HETRA for 10+ years! During his toddler years, Jack hated PT. He cried every time we entered the hospital. His Mom and I thought there had to be a better way. One day while at work a new employee asked me if HETRA was available in Omaha to volunteer at. I looked it up and after a discussion, Jack was quickly signed up for HETRA. And we've been going every week ever since!
Jack's goals at HETRA have always been to improve mobility and strength. But it has turned into so much more than that. The social/emotional part of HETRA has affected all our lives and the staff at the Barn are more like family than healthcare providers.”
Jack: “When I started riding at HETRA, I had to build up my experience with riding horses. I did not really have that much experience before. I had to go through two stages, Therapy Services and then Adaptive Riding. I am not quite to independent riding yet, but we are getting there with each session. There was this mechanical horse I had to ride, EQ, and I remember starting to ride around the stable when I was just three years old. The point was to make sure I could get on the horse safely and ride appropriately.
When I first started Adaptive Riding, I knew it was going to be tricky or hard, especially after I was recovering from surgery. After my surgery when I came back I had to start all over. I had to redo the test on EQ to make sure I was ready, which was hard for me. I thought, "I am going to be ready immediately. I am going to be independent and riding without a horse leader" but my dad said I have to start over because my legs still need to recover.
The parts of this program I really enjoy are all of the nice people you get to meet, meeting all of the horses, and meeting all the other people who ride there. I’ve met a lot of people that I can actually talk to which is really nice too. I had this sidewalker for about 10 weeks. She was really kind and would do my beginning stretches with me. For example, I had to do calf stretches and then I would have to sit on the pommel to exercise and warm-up my legs for being able to sit on the horse. We would always talk and it was really fun getting to know all of the volunteers and getting to know about their lives.
If I could describe HETRA in one word I would say Creative, because they always find different and cool ways to make each kid there successful in whatever they need help with. I find that really cool to see and to be able to participate in. I feel like every single time I go there I’ve gained confidence in myself. I’ve realized that riding horses helps me build strength in my legs and it helps me keep on going and keep on walking.”
Matt's HETRA Story
I started volunteering at HETRA almost 6 years ago. I was feeling a little lost in my personal life, trying to find something to give me joy and get me through some turmoil. I had always thought horses were neat creatures, but had never actually had the chance to really interact with them. One day I started looking for anything horse-related I could get involved in, and HETRA was one of the first search results that came up. I was intrigued right away. There has always been a focus of caring for others, especially those who need the most help, in my upbringing. My parents were educators who spent parts of their careers in special education, and my sister is a physical therapist specializing in children's therapies at schools. When I learned I could give back to a community, and be a part of helping others in a unique way, it was an immediate attraction.
I began volunteering once a week and quickly formed bonds with the participants. It was so fun to see them enjoying themselves on the horses, and pushing themselves to work hard on each task set forth by their therapists.
One of the very first riders I worked with somehow reminded me of my own daughter, and I was always so happy to work with her. It really made me feel good to see how excited she was when she saw me. It seemed I was as important to her, as she was to me. I will still see her from time to time, and I will often get the privilege of subbing on her sessions.
I've been a steady presence for quite a few other riders and have formed bonds with them as well. I think it's really important for their routine and session goals to have consistent helpers. Many of these riders have improved so much since I've known them and it's awesome to see their improvements. I quickly learned that while the interest in horses is what led me to HETRA, the relationships built with each participant is what keeps me coming back.
During the hours that I'm at the barn, all of my stress and worries go away. No matter what kind of day I've had, or whatever's on my mind, all that disappears when I'm working with the participants. They exude so much joy that it's easy to soak that up and have it motivate me, too. Whatever small things I'm facing, HETRA reminds me that there are others with harder challenges and obstacles that they are working to overcome. It's hard not to be impressed by their determination, and you feel like you're a part of their successes. I'm also so impressed by the therapists and other staff that pour their heart and soul into these programs. All of them are so selfless, it really makes me work harder at being a good helper for the riders. I tell anyone who is thinking of doing volunteer work to check out HETRA. It's truly been such a good thing in my life.
Londyn's HETRA Story
As a family, we have had the honor of experiencing the benefits from HETRA for the past 3, almost 4 years now. HETRA has supported our daughter, Londyn, since she turned three years old and she is now about to turn seven! I feel so privileged to get to tell you a bit about Londyn’s story, who she is and how HETRA truly changes lives like hers.
Londyn is our little piece of heaven on earth. When Londyn was born, we were just like every other parent with their first born and many get to be with their second born, third born, and so on. We dreamt up her whole future, started a college savings account, thought about all the opportunities she would have, and always knew in the back of our minds this little angel would change the world. However, we never could have predicted in what ways she would change our world and those she will encounter. At a very early age, we noticed that our sweet little baby girl was taking on challenges in her everyday life that we have always taken for granted.
What we didn’t realize, is that Londyn would have a genetic condition, and be only the 25th person diagnosed with this specific gene variation. That intellectual disabilities, being nonverbal, being unable to run, jump, move around like typical children, was going to be her future. That we would silently mourn the comparisons of her progress versus her cousins’ or our friends’ children. We didn’t know about this one gene, GNAI1. We didn’t know it was going to have the power to impact her entire makeup of who she is. That one gene, would cause her to work harder than I have ever had to. One gene that has put her in the category of a person with a disability.
We learned quickly that because of this one gene, Londyn was going to have to be innately more resilient, work harder than others, and that at no fault of her own, society was going to have opportunities taken from her just because of the way she was born. As a person without a disability, I can tell you this…. I have it easy. I don’t have to struggle to learn things. I get to make any and all choices in my life and I get to do so independently. I get to live the life I want to live and get to take that for granted. And while I have all the freedoms of the world, I know it is my responsibility to learn from one of the most amazing little girls whose freedoms at times are limited due to being labeled “developmentally disabled”.
While we won’t deny that at times having a child with a disability makes you pray so hard and hope so big that she still gets the life that we all so easily get to live, we also know that Londyn and all individuals with disabilities are so much more than their labels. And while it makes us crazy that her labels are caused by one gene, because after all it is one teeny tiny thing with such a huge impact, we know in our heart of hearts it’s this one gene that also makes up the kindest, most loving, most endearing, most caring, and happiest human that has ever walked this earth. Having a disability looks and comes to the surface in a multitude of ways. Londyn has her own story. We will tell it for her and speak up for her until she is able to do so on her own, and we know she will be able to do just that, one day.
I am blessed to work in the field of Special Education and having a daughter who will benefit from the betterment of that world has become my driving force day in and day out. That will not change, and neither will Kyle and I bragging to all that will listen that we are a Mommy and Daddy to a real life superhero. One that may have a disability, but one that also has the greatest ABILITY, which is her ability to spread love. I would give anything for the world to be a little more like her. As she changes the world, she has changed my world. She makes anyone that crosses her path want to be a better person, and possibly even more important, she makes anyone that crosses her path want to advocate for all individuals that had choices and opportunities taken from them outside of their control. She is our wonder. She is the world’s reminder to be kind, to be inclusive, and to love so hard.
I tell you this because it was HETRA that was one of the first places to give us a new sense of hope, a safe haven and a place of belonging for Londyn in a world that can be so competitive and so siloed. Londyn has an experience that other children do not get: she gets to ride horses here, which is pretty darn cool. It is something that her peers, her little sister, her cousins, get to be aw-struck and impressed by. Over her short life, she has experienced so many therapies to support her needs and it was HETRA that gave her a chance to do something that she could be proud of.
HETRA supports two of what I consider to be the most important kinds of individuals in this world: Military Veterans and Individuals with Disabilities. Both making our world a better place to live in. By hearing our story, my hope is that you realize supporting others and being kind is what will make this sometimes scary world a much brighter place. That you know you are supporting a place that celebrates our world’s greatest superheroes. That they are offering opportunities to individuals that so often get left behind or are not included. That you are changing the world just by listening to the story of just one little girl who no matter what has been thrown at her, brings a spark to life and a pure happiness to all.
HETRA is a reminder to be better and do better. We have been blessed with an amazing team for Londyn. HETRA is so intentional when setting up teams to support their participants. The staff and volunteers here are truly happiness spreaders and we will forever be grateful and indebted to you. They have impacted families' lives more than they will ever know. They have definitely changed ours!
Kyle's HETRA Story
I started volunteering at HETRA in January of 2015 after a good friend recommended them to me. After retiring from a fulfilling career in special education—both teaching and administration—I was looking for a new direction for my energies and interests. I felt myself at loose ends after all those years of service to kids and families.
Volunteering at HETRA has since evolved into a mutually beneficial arrangement. They’ve given me that purpose and direction I’d been seeking, and I’m able to offer them my life experiences in working with people and my calming influence with the horses. I’ve spent years of my life volunteering with several Vacation Bible Schools and other church-related activities. Now I’m able to combine those experiences and life lessons with my time at HETRA, gaining the best of both worlds by encouraging the best in both people and horses.
When I first started at HETRA, I became a groomer and tacker but quickly realized I wanted to do more as a volunteer. I started participating in more of their training sessions, and now I work as a horse handler for leading lessons. I also turn out horses in the mornings, help with conditioning and feeding, and substitute for sessions when the opportunity presents itself. There’s so much to be done on any given day, and I’m happy I get to be a part of all of it.
My first memory of a horse was on my mother's best friend's farm. They had a couple of paint mares that we would ride when I was in elementary school through junior high. I've always been comfortable around horses and have had a great appreciation for them. We even had a horse for a little while when my children were younger, but through HETRA, I learned so much more about equine care!
After a couple of years of volunteering, the urge to be more involved with riding and caring for a horse became too strong to ignore. I'm friends with several ladies who have horses at HETRA, and I knew it was a great opportunity. I talked it over with my husband, Rick, who is always so supportive, and he encouraged me to go with my heart. So, I presented the idea to Shelby, who helped me find Yahzi. There’s truly no better place for a horse than at HETRA. The comprehensive care provided is fabulous, and I get to watch her change the lives of our participants, which has been a dream come true. Yahzi enjoys her job as a HETRA horse just as much as I enjoy being a volunteer here, and I look forward to this partnership for many years to come.
What started out as a handful of volunteering hours suddenly turned into spending an average of 13-15 hours a week at HETRA. I just can’t get enough of this place. They’ve improved my life by giving me a new purpose for service, along with a lot of exercise, which is a win-win! Thankfully, I’ve been blessed by God with good health and a supportive husband, so I plan on volunteering here as long as I can!
Hank's HETRA Story
After Hank was diagnosed with Autism, I began to research different types of therapy. At this point, he had been going to an Autism therapy school part-time. Hank was already a very bright boy, but we wanted to help him develop the tools and skills needed to be on par with his peers. It was while researching our options online that I discovered the HETRA website. I had read a lot of success stories about Autism and equine therapy and felt it was worth a try, so we called and set up a tour.
Hank had absolutely zero experience with horses prior to starting at HETRA. As a matter of fact, large animals tended to frighten him, so I didn’t know if he would like this type of therapy or if he would be able—or willing—to overcome his fear of large animals. But as a parent of an autistic child, you just want the best for them, and we were willing to try anything if it would help Hank’s development!
“Hank has been riding with HETRA for just over two years now, participating in their Therapy Services. By working with an Occupational Therapist, I hoped that this would be another way for Hank to work on different skills and learning techniques, all while doing it in a relaxing and exciting environment.
HETRA took our hopes for Hank and exceeded them tenfold—especially regarding his communication. When he first started his therapy services, Hank was borderline non-verbal. He really didn’t like touches or affection, and he was unable to express himself very well either. Now, Hank can tell us how he feels and expresses himself quite well. We are just now getting to see and learn Hank’s personality, and we are incredibly proud. Not only is he smart, but he is sooo funny, and he loves to make people laugh! They’ve also assisted in giving Hank the skills to think and physically perform tasks for himself, which has been more than we anticipated.
Hank really loves being a part of the HETRA family. He’s been going for quite a while now and has made so much progress. When you talk about Hank’s experience with HETRA, you really can’t leave out his therapist, Cassidy Fredrickson. He has been so lucky to have worked with her his entire time at HETRA, and the two of them have bonded incredibly well. He deserves so much credit for his progress, along with his work at his autism school, but when he goes to HETRA and works with Cassidy, he gets so much out of his lessons and has become quite an exceptional young boy. Along with the horses, who really are the STARS of the show, I can’t stress enough how important his relationship with Cassidy is. She knows him inside and out at this point, and it’s so heartwarming to see the two of them working together.
There have been so many positives since starting at HETRA, but the most impactful moment has been how far he has come. I love watching the end of his sessions. After he gets off his horse, Jewel, he likes to go out and pet her. Then, after everyone is done, he likes to shut the gate by himself before coming over to tell me how he did for the day. It’s a moment I look forward to every week—more than words could ever say. I don’t know where we would be without HETRA today, but I’m so glad we don’t have to find out.
Julie's HETRA Story
I was the kid who cried in the back of the station wagon on the way home from horse camp. I just couldn't get enough of these amazing animals! I took horseback riding lessons for a few years and finally got a horse of my own when I was in high school. We participated in 4-H and went to horse shows. I had the time of my life! Unfortunately, as life went on, the horses had to be sold when I went off to college, got married, and had a family. I didn't think I would ever get back to being around horses.
After injuring my arm as an ultrasonographer, I was unable to continue the career that I absolutely loved. I was completely lost and felt like I had lost my identity! I needed a new passion and purpose. Then I found HETRA.
I became a volunteer in the summer of 2014, right after they moved to their new location in Gretna. They had a fantastic, structured training program for its volunteers, and I quickly became useful to an organization I believe in. They have so many programs, activities, and barn chore opportunities to pick and choose from for what suits you best. They truly have something for everybody.
I was so amazed by HETRA and its mission, 'To improve the quality of life both physically and emotionally of adults and children of all ability levels through equine-assisted activities.' When they found themselves in need of a draft-cross horse, I wanted to help. It took about six months to find an appropriate horse, but we eventually brought Leroy home to HETRA in May of 2015. He's a beautiful blue-eyed Belgian/Haflinger cross, and he’s such a gentle and low-energy horse who is perfect for some of HETRA's riders. Leroy has really grown into his job, and honestly, I believe he loves it! He's always relaxed and confident in the arena during sessions. My husband would tell you Leroy is "priceless" because, along with HETRA, I have become a better and happier person. I am so proud of everything Leroy does for this organization, along with all the other hard-working horses in the HETRA herd. I love them all!
Besides volunteering as a Barn Leader, Platinum Horse Leader, and helping with Conditioning, I feed the HETRA horses three mornings a week. When it's dark and cold outside, it's not so fun to get up early, but I can honestly say I'm ready to feed by the time I have driven to the barn. As soon as I open the hay barn, I hear Leroy whining because he's so excited for food, and being able to watch the sunrise over the grounds is breathtaking—it's something you can't see very well living in Omaha. I always feel better physically and mentally after doing something worthwhile early in the morning, which is why volunteering at HETRA is always a great way—the best way—to start my day.
I have witnessed so many miracles since becoming a volunteer. Many people with traumatic brain injury and strokes have regained strength and balance while on the horse and progress to walking. I have seen young children who are afraid of the horse when they first start eventually ride and say their first words to the horse. I've seen teenagers and veterans learn to have the confidence and horse skills so they can lead a horse through a trail course. I've seen agitated autistic children become calm and able to complete tasks while on the horse. Each experience has been a blessing, and I'm so proud to be a part of their journey.
Barb's HETRA Story
I grew up on a farm with my eight siblings and that’s where I grew my love for all animals, especially horses and dogs. My dad trained horses in his spare time so I have always been around horses and loved them. I got my own horse when I was 14. I showed him at 4H and “rode the wheels off him” per my mom!
I have wanted my own horse again as an adult for quite some time. Every birthday I would ask my husband for one. He suggested I go check out HETRA. I started volunteering in October, 2015. My husband still hasn’t gotten me a horse for my birthday, but we donated toward the purchase of Thunder to help HETRA restart the Adaptive Carriage Driving program. He is a handsome draft cross from an Amish farm, and I’m so glad that we were able to contribute to the restarting of this wonderful program.
My regular HETRA days are Monday and Tuesday, and I sub and help feed when I can. I started out as many new volunteers do: Barn Maintenance, Grooming and Tacking and as a Sidewalker. I am now a Designated Horse Handler and Platinum Horse Leader. I also enjoy volunteering with the Life Skills and Veterans programs. The horses drew me to HETRA, and the participants and all of the wonderful people at HETRA keep me coming back.
HETRA feeds my country girl soul. Coming here reminds me that I am blessed and not to take my life for granted. HETRA inspires me to be the absolute best me I can be.
If I could describe HETRA in one word, it would be Rewarding.
Forrest's HETRA Story
Having been a participant at HETRA for the past 29 years, Forrest has truly grown up with HETRA. Forrest started out in HETRA’s Therapy Services program at just 8 years old. Today, at age 39, he continues to come to HETRA on a weekly basis.
Forrest’s story was a pretty typical one until about 3 months old. Up until this point he had been healthy, happy, and the joy of my life. And then he stopped breathing and the seizures started. Forrest had a lung defect that had gone undiagnosed and led to some extensive brain damage. They put him into a medically induced coma in order to try and stop the seizures. We were told that there was nothing more that they could do, and if we took him out of that medically induced coma, the seizures wouldn’t stop, and he would likely end up dying. What they didn’t know is, Forrest is a fighter. At this point, they told me he was quadriplegic, completely blind, and would never walk, talk, or move a muscle in his body independently and recommended institutionalization. I was not going to believe such a prognosis for our baby that was only 3 months old.
We went to see a doctor at the med center, and he said Forrest needed to be seen by an orthopedic surgeon. At this point, Forrest was about 18 months old, and they said his legs were scissoring. His brain was telling the nerves “you’re not tight enough” so his muscles got tighter and tighter and the muscles atrophied. They took him in for surgery and they turned his right leg so his foot was pointing to the right. When I asked them why they did this, the surgeon said he’ll never walk so this will allow him maybe stand on his own someday. The surgeon was prognosing that my son would not be able to do this. Once again, they were not factoring in my strong will and Forrest’s fighting spirit.
Forrest had many surgeries and after each one he would have to learn how to walk again. I made his first walker because the doctor didn’t think he was ready. I took an old stroller, attached a carpet roll, and strung rope through it because he clearly wanted to walk. He was always pulling himself up to stand. He would chase his little sister around the house with his walker. If you would see Forrest now, he’s lightyears different from back then.
I did not grow up around horses. I was actually pretty intimidated by these large animals. But I knew riding would be good for Forrest because of the stretching that would happen when sitting on the horse. One thing I did not realize, is as the horse walks and shifts his weight from side to side, Forrest would feel that movement and be able to build the strength to mimic the same motion as walking, basically a form of gait training. Due to his tight muscles, his current walking stride at this point were somewhat stiff and jerky.
My son has such a strong personality, he thinks he’s in charge everywhere he goes. But when it came time to ride a horse for the first time, Forrest refused. The rest of the week I bribed him with Dairy Queen if he would get on the horse next time we went. For years, we would end up getting Dairy Queen after almost every HETRA lesson!
Now he has learned how to control the horse and ride through a pattern. Edye and Katherine have helped him build control and balance by having him reach back and forth on and around the horse. I really attribute HETRA as one of the reasons why Forrest walks as incredibly well as he does now. Over the last 29 years, HETRA has helped Forrest build strength and balance, and now he has the confidence to be on his feet.
If I had to describe HETRA in one word, it would be miraculous. I think the services HETRA offers affect people most certainly physically but also emotionally. Yes, you learn to ride and control a horse, but it is much bigger than that, especially when you're blind. It builds confidence, self-esteem, inner peace, and so much more.
Paul's HETRA Story
"If I had to describe HETRA in one word it would be