Sometimes, the easiest path to healing isn’t what you might think. Sometimes, the best therapy involves a 1,000-pound horse.
Just ask Jason Smeck, Managing Director in the Senior Housing and Healthcare Team at RED Capital. Last year, Jason attended an annual fundraising gala for Dreams on Horseback, a nonprofit focused on helping people with challenges—such as kids with special needs and military veterans readjusting to civilian life—improve their lives through horse-assisted experiences. The year prior to the gala, Jason’s youngest daughter, Claire, was diagnosed with autism. When Dreams on Horseback’s Executive Director, Jennifer Hansen, spoke at the event about another young girl with autism who improved her communication skills tremendously after participating in therapeutic riding lessons, Jason and his wife, Amy, knew they were on to something good.
“It just struck a chord with us,” Jason says. “We were experiencing a lot of the same things that the young girl’s family was experiencing, so it was very impactful for us.”
Flash-forward to today: After taking lessons for the past 18 months, Claire’s social skills have improved, her confidence has risen and her motor skills have been strengthened. “She does riding lessons every week and gets excited about it,” Jason says. “Just seeing that has an impact on me as well.”
The reason equine therapy can be so helpful? Horses have a unique ability to mirror a rider’s emotions. If a rider is tense or nervous, then the horse is also anxious, so the rider must learn to bring their emotions under control to relax the horse. For kids with autism, this relationship helps them to understand that their actions have an impact on other people—and animals—too.
“The organization has really opened my eyes to the challenges some kids with special needs face,” Jason says.
But it’s not just kids with special needs who benefit from equine therapy—Dreams on Horseback offers a variety of programs, such as its Alzheimer’s Sensory Experiences sessions. Grooming, touching and observing horses can lessen agitation in those with the disease. Also on the lineup: the nonprofit’s Military Connections program, which serves post-combat military personnel and veterans—and that’s a program Jason knows a thing or two about since he helped get it off the ground in 2016.
After learning about the organization’s goal of extending its services to veterans and the military, Jason submitted a request for a grant from the ORIX Foundation to help Dreams on Horseback launch a pilot program—and it was accepted. One year later, the program is thriving and Dreams on Horseback has visions of expanding it to help even more people.
“Because of Jason’s advocacy, we’re now able to help our veteran and military neighbors enhance their lives through learning, recreation and volunteering at our facility,” Jennifer says. .
Jason isn’t stopping there: As a member of the Columbus Volunteer Task Force—Community Engagement Corps—Jason has helped arrange a volunteer day for RED Capital employees on September 17 at the Dreams on Horseback farm. Employees will have the chance to help out with rides, grooming stations and refreshments as the nonprofit hosts the families of Military Connections participants.
“In keeping with our love of therapy horses, we like to say that our volunteers are the hoofbeats of our organization,” Jennifer says. “In 2017, volunteers donated 1,050 hours to Dreams on Horseback. Whether they’re walking along side our less stable riding students, picking up sticks after a storm or wrapping presents for our annual holiday party, our volunteers are an invaluable part of our team and mission.”
There’s no doubt Jason plays a major role in impacting the lives of the 3,500 people who are served by Dreams on Horseback each year. If he’s not busy helping out the nonprofit, you might find the Ohio native either toting his kids—10-year-old Connor, 9-year-old Olivia and 6-year-old Claire—place to place or enjoying the outdoors by hiking and biking.
“We can get into a bubble where we don’t see outside perspectives and challenges that people have outside of work,” Jason says. “We spend so much time at work and focused on building up our own businesses that we can sometimes overlook what’s going on in the community. It’s important to get perspective and get out there and help people in whatever way you can.”