Nonprofit of the year has lots of heart

Adam Hill, 14, saddles up on Bandit the horse at The Heart of the Horse Therapy Ranch with the help of executive director Guy Adams. Heart of the Horse was selected as a nonprofit of the year by the state of California.

Adam Hill, 14, did something nearly every eighth-grader in the country does when he walked across the stage at his graduation. But unlike Hill, few eighth-graders overcome a cerebral palsy-like condition to do so.

Hill fell into a pool and nearly drowned when he was 21 months old, doctors told his mother he would likely remain in a vegetative state for the rest of his life. Hill has since proven the prognosis wrong through familial support, a strong will and a little help from The Heart of the Horse Therapy Ranch.

Hill’s mother, Sandra, said after two and a half years at Heart of the Horse Adam has made amazing improvements.

“When we first came here, his hips were completely out of socket. After a few months we went to the chiropractor and he almost couldn’t believe Adam’s legs were back in place,” Sandra said. “He went to Wild Water Adventure Park, not too long ago, and was able to sit up in a tube. Those rides throw you around, too, it was amazing.”

Jack Hannah, board member at The Heart of the Horse Therapy Ranch hugs rider Adam Hill after his weekly ride. “That’s Cowboy Jack, that’s Adam’s best friend,” Sandra Hill, Adam’s mother said.

Adam’s success story is among many others credited to Heart of Horse, and one of the reasons the ranch recently received recognition as a nonprofit of the year in California. Guy Adams, executive director of the ranch, said receiving the award is a great achievement considering the competition.

“There’s quite a few nonprofits that get the award, but what’s really outstanding in our case is that we’ve only been around for six years, the other organizations getting recognized were at least 20 to 50 years old,” Adams said. “Added to that, there’s around 75,000 nonprofits in the state.”

Fourteen-year-old Mitali Desai is living with Down Syndrome and autism and rides at Heart of the Horse once a week. Mitali’s mother Deepali says it is a ritual that Mitali does not like to skip.

“If we get busy and can’t make it out here she knows,” Deepali said. “If we miss a week she will make the horse noise to say let’s go.”

Mitali uses a wheelchair to get around, but can walk when her legs are strong enough. Deepali said since her daughter knows how to walk she is not qualified to undergo physical therapy. Mitali’s only options for an improved quality of life are sessions at swimming therapy and Heart of the Horse.

Deepali said Mitali’s recent X-rays showed Heart of the Horse is helping strengthen her thigh muscles and bring her kneecaps to their correct position.

Mitali Desai, 14, rides Bandit at The Heart of the Horse Therapy Ranch. Desai who lives with Down Syndrome and autism rides weekly to help strengthen muscles that allow her to walk.

Heart of the Horse offers more than physical improvement though. Adams and a couple volunteers helping Mitali with a ride clapped and cheered when she managed to raise her arms off the horse, a maneuver that requires a deal of effort and core strength. It was a personal victory for Mitali, but it left everyone smiling.

The Hills shared a similar closeness with Adams and the ranch hands. Before his ride, Adams playfully teased Adam about his favorite football team the Cincinnati Bengals. The jokes and laughter kept the session feeling like a meeting between friends.

“We’ve been coming here for so long, everyone just feels like family,” Sandra said.

Disabled people, people with traumatic brain injuries and veterans battling post-traumatic stress disorder flock to the ranch, generating 200 sessions a month at Heart of the Horse, which Adams says was made possible by the grace of God.

Adams owned a thriving heating and air conditioning business before starting Heart of the Horse. When the economy took a dive during the Great Recession, businesses went under, costing Adams clients and eventually his entire business. He said he and his wife prayed with the owner of the property that would eventually become Heart of the Horse and started working there.

The ranch was not originally for therapy horses. Adams said it took a young girl and her father to inspire the change.

“They first came out here looking for a horse, but I wouldn’t let them get near any with their wheelchair, for fear it would spook a horse,” Adams said. “I felt so bad about it after they left I started to think how we could train a horse to get used to medical equipment.”

Adams said they used everything they could think of, wheelchairs, walkers, canes, hanging IVs and crutches to condition horses for therapy work. When he felt a horse was ready for the girl he invited her back.

“I tell people a little four-year-old girl with cerebral palsy changed my life,” Adams said. “She melted that last little bit of ice on my heart. As I watched her sit up straight on that horse and the color in her face changed, her mannerisms just changed as that horse started to move, and I just knew that was where God wanted us to be.”

Adams relied on a working knowledge of horses and human muscle anatomy to grow Heart of the Horse. He said he was interested in bodybuilding for 36 years and as a result understands strength exercises that can be applied to horseback riding.

“It helps a lot of the time to explain exactly to parents what we’re doing with the riders and what muscles they’re working,” Adams said.

Knowledge and expertise go a long way at the ranch, but the riders are perhaps best served by the nonprofit nature of Heart of the Horse. Adams said they have riders coming to their ranch in Academy all the way from Porterville, Tulare, Merced, Modesto and Los Banos, passing other therapy ranches along the way that families simply cannot afford.

Adams offers eight sessions for a recommended $150, but would never turn away someone based on ability to pay. He said other ranches generally charge somewhere from $200 a session to $200 a month.

“We’ve never made this about money,” Adams said. “We want these kids and veterans healed and at the same time we don’t want to take food off their tables.”

Heart of the Horse Board Member Jack Hannah is a firm believer in Adams’ practices and said he got behind Heart of the Horse after only a couple visits. Hannah, a cowboy and Western musician, was enlisted by a friend to check out the ranch after her sons began riding there.

“After about three visits, I came up to Guy, I don’t even think he knew who I was, and I said, ‘I’m going to be on your board,’” Hannah said. “He kind of just looked at me, and I assumed he was saying yes because he wasn’t saying no.”

Hannah says Adams has a knack for achieving visible and emotional successes.

“What really impresses me about Heart of the Horse is not just what they do, but how they do it,” Hannah said. “And how they do it, is based on Guy’s versatility, his profound knowledge and his ability to work with people, it’s just notable. I don’t think it’s anything he tries to do, either, it’s just who he is.”

Hannah is one of six board members Adams refers to as his “accountability team.” The board carries out executive and fundraising duties while jobs on the ranch are handled by other volunteers. Adams said the volunteers who help with riders and maintenance are mostly veterans or Fresno State students.

Adams said Heart of the Horse relies heavily on donations and if anyone would like to help they can call (559) 297-7100 or visit their website at heartofthehorse.org