To hear Krista Carpenter tell it, it’s really just a short gallop from the Cascade Stables in Audubon Park to the lush, rolling hills around Folsom where each day, “little miracles” happen at her New Heights Therapy Center.
Carpenter spends as little time as possible behind her desk. You can usually find her in the barn area of the massive center, along the trails or in the corrals where the 17 horses of the program get their exercise and soak up the north shore sunshine.
“We have about 80 riders of all shapes and sizes,” said Carpenter, who has been executive director of the 18-year-old program since January. “We have military veterans with PTSD (post traumatic stress syndrome), children with mental and physical disabilities which as spina bifida.
“Something very powerful happens when you’re riding or standing next to a 1,500 pound-plus animal and all of a sudden muscles that have never before been used are now being used, and human and animal start bonding. We have clients who cannot verbally communicate, but they communicate with and bond with these animals. It’s an amazing thing.”
Take 22-year-old Walker Haase, who was born with a condition called Fragile X chromosome syndrome that leaves him with sensory and muscular deprivation, dysfunctional speech and a host of other issues. “Walker is one of the happiest people I know,” said his mother, Mary Ann Haase. “Walker spends three days a week riding and working at New Heights,” she said. “This place, these animals, the people here…they’re a big, big part of his life.”
“He still has his problems,” Mary Ann Haase said. “But the strength and the outlook on life he has gained have improved tremendously. He’s graduated from high school and looks forward to every day.”
Volunteer Margaret Long has been coming to the riding center for about nine months.
“I come one day a week, anywhere from six to eight hours, but in truth, I hate to leave,” she said. “To begin with, I love horses. Then there’s watching the joy on the faces of the young children and the progress they make…it’s a win-win situation as far as I’m concerned.”
Volunteers, parents and staff of New Heights talk about “mystical bonds” between riders and horses and of the “progress made” and “astonishing abilities that were never thought to be there.”
“It’s like family,” says Volunteer Coordinator, Vicki Eland. “We get people who want to volunteer on a regular weekly basis, or some who want to volunteer with special fund raising events like our garden party or our golf tournament last week (May 25) which raised a total of $75,000 from entry fees to donations.
“Then we have organizations like the New Orleans Polo Association (whose land bumps against New Heights’ seven acres) who are big supporters. We even get horses from them. In all, we have about 100 individuals who volunteer.”
“Our overall budget this year is about $420,000,” Krista Carpenter says. “So you can see, those volunteers and businesses in the community make so much of what we do here possible. We also have a small recovery fee and charge about $50 for a private (riding) lesson. We also do group lessons and are actually in the process of putting the pieces into place to be accepted by insurance (companies) because, in fact, the therapy center is just like physical or occupational therapy…reimbursable. “
In a flash, Miss Carpenter is back in her office, answering the phone and jotting down notes to go out to this this volunteer or that client’s care giver. Just as quickly she is behind the wheel of her golf cart zipping down the path to the tack room and the corrals where she is showing off the gleaming bridles and bits to an inquisitive mother who is considering how New Heights could help her son lead a more fulfilling life.
The sun is retreating behind the barn and a hill in the west, but that doesn’t slow down Krista Carpenter. She is busily explain it all to the mother: “It just depends on what we are trying to accomplish in a physical sense. The horse’s gait is a diagonal movement and for someone who cannot walk you can put them on the back of the horse and the horse walks and that can cause the riders to engage their poor muscles that otherwise he can engage sitting in a wheelchair in strengthening those muscles…This is absolutely a physical benefit. Then it can be the warmth of the horse that can help loosen those muscles…”
It is indeed a short trip from growing up on Nashville Avenue and Magazine Street in Uptown New Orleans and learning all about horses at the Cascade Stables in Audubon Park to showing that a saddle may be a great place to find those “‘little miracles” of hope in difficult lives.