Erica, Maguire Fellow in North Texas

Erica is a senior majoring in psychology and sociology in Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences. She was awarded a Maguire and Irby Family Foundation Public Service Fellowship for summer 2014 from the Cary M. Maguire Center for Ethics and Public Responsibility at SMU to intern at ManeGait Therapeutic Horsemanship in McKinney, Texas. Erica plans to focus on fundraising, grants and event planning, while also volunteering in the nonprofit’s lesson program.

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Horses, healing and high-fives

My first two weeks at ManeGait have flown by, and I can’t wait to get back to work next week. Being at the ‘Gait is truly a therapeutic experience in and of itself, for a number of reasons.

Out there, the sense of community is so strong and vibrant that I couldn’t help but feel welcome and at home. Even though the lesson program has over 150 riders and 350 volunteers a week, everybody knows and genuinely cares about one another. No matter what you’re working on, there is always somebody ready to lend a helping hand. Working in this kind of environment makes it impossible to be in a bad mood, no matter what kind of stress you’re dealing with at the moment.

While volunteering in the lesson program, I was able to talk to some of the riders and their families, and was surprised by what a deep sense of connection I felt to their individual stories. Some parents talked to me about how their child’s first words, first steps, and first smiles took place out at ManeGait. Although I understood the mechanisms behind the first steps (the movement of the therapy horse beneath the rider mimics the movement of walking and strengthens the rider’s core muscles), it took my being down at the barn among the riders to understand how the horses bring them out of their shell, give them a sense of responsibility, and make them want to reach out to those around them.

In just three weeks of volunteering in the ManeGait lesson program, I’ve seen enormous improvements in the riders I’ve been working with. During his first riding lesson, one of my riders became so frustrated that he tried yanking at the horse’s mane and ended up getting off because he could not stop crying. By lesson number three, he was laughing throughout the whole lesson, petting his horse respectfully when he dismounted, making clear efforts to follow instruction and improve his riding skills, and giving me an enthusiastic high-five before we parted ways at the end of the day! I feel so incredibly honored to be a part of this transition, and can’t believe how very proud I am of this rider for his success.

In lessons, I’m not simply a volunteer there to make sure the rider doesn’t fall off their horse. I am, without actively trying to be, invested in the rider’s success and happiness. I’m cheerleading, high-fiving, and I feel overwhelmingly thrilled when a lesson goes well. I came into the program thinking that a person’s disabilities would be an obstacle to their horseback riding experience, but I’m already learning that disabilities don’t matter out there. It didn’t take two minutes of talking with my riders before I quit thinking about their disabilities and started seeing their personalities, quirks, and spirits.

Even if a rider cannot yet walk or talk, they are treated by the entire community as perfectly capable of riding and caring for their horse. As such, there are high expectations for each rider, no matter their disability. It is amazing to see how quickly they grow into their roles as horse-brusher, saddle-carrier, carrot-feeder, and horseback rider.

On top of all this, I get the privilege of being a Marketing intern too! Although things in the marketing and development office are removed one degree from the actual nitty-gritty taking place 50 yards away at the barn, it is still incredibly exciting to be a part of what keeps the organization funded and growing.

In the past two weeks, I worked on sending out requests for in-kind auction donations for an event coming up in a few months, and got to spend time editing a grant which seeks funding for a major fencing project on the property. It did not take long for me to get comfortable asking for things from past and potential donors, perhaps because I’m asking on behalf of a cause I am now so passionate about. I’m already starting to see how much time and effort goes into nonprofit development, largely because of how many tasks fall under the job description.

At a smaller nonprofit like ManeGait, there are only two or three people who handle the grantwriting, the donor relations, the event planning and execution, the marketing, the community outreach, etc. Even though it will be a major undertaking, I feel so lucky to have the opportunity to get to experience and participate in each of these tasks. My goal for this internship is to learn as much as I can about every aspect of running a nonprofit, and this is the place to be to do just that.

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