When Sarah Nei climbs aboard Sky, her entire world looks different. “Look, I’m taller than anybody here!” she proclaims as the white speckled horse walks off slowly.
That brings a big smile to Cheryl Vos, who is the director of Hoof Prints of Hope, a riding program she developed to help kids with developmental disabilities and children who are familiar with the foster care system. “My parents fostered lots of kids while I was growing up,” she said. “I know how hard a time a lot of these children go through.”
Cheryl has always had a special place in her heart for horses. She was born in Wausau, but lived all over Wisconsin as her dad worked for the state. But wherever she was, she found a way to ride horses. When she was a young girl, her family moved into a neighborhood with a riding stable and Cheryl spent her days with the ponies that lived there. “I have the best memories of those times,” she said. “That’s all I wanted to do, was be with those ponies.”
Cheryl spent 15 years working at Holy Family Church as a youth minister, but during that time she continued to hone her horsemanship skills, including becoming a certified instructor through the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH) organization and learning and implementing the methods of natural horsemanship, which is a humane way to train horses that is based on cooperation between a horse and its trainer. “It’s a method of training horses where they want to please you,” said Cheryl.
Today, Cheryl works part-time at St. Teresa’s parish in Three Lakes but her goal is to develop a center where developmentally challenged kids and at-risk young adults can learn and interact with horses. She also wants to use horses in this program that may have had a rough past themselves.
Cheryl is taking steps to realize her goal, with a determined eye to the future. Three years ago, she decided to provide horseback riding lessons to developmentally challenged kids, using animals that belonged to a friend. Today, her classes take place on a farm in Woodruff that provides an outdoor arena and she has acquired her own therapy animals.
Sky and Monty are perfect horses for this program, although both have had a rough past. Sky was slated to be slaughtered only a short while ago. Cheryl rescued the white horse with delicate flecks and trained her to become a therapy horse. And she performs her duties flawlessly.
Sarah Nei is especially enamored with this mare. Sarah has Down’s syndrome, but when she is petting or riding Sky, she is in heaven.
“Since Sarah has been taking lessons, she has gained a lot of confidence,” said her mother, Dawn. “I can also see her becoming more independent.”
Cheryl has set up the arena to present challenges for the riders. For instance, there are three barrels where figure eights are performed; a line of poles where horse and rider weave in and out; small logs that a horse has to step over and even a kid’s basketball hoop. All these not only challenge the mount but the rider as well. As participants perform these activities, they become more agile and unwittingly use muscles they normally would not have the opportunity to exercise.
It takes three volunteers to help each rider. One person leads the horse while two people serve as side walkers. “I have about 15 to 20 volunteers that help out,” said Cheryl. “That’s another great thing about this program. It brings volunteers together and they become very good friends. They all love horses and they all love helping these children, so it makes for a very close-knit family.”
It takes a lot of determination and focus to develop a dream like the one Cheryl has. Someday she hopes to have her own facility, with her horses settled in their own stalls and her family living on the premises. But that hasn’t stopped her from starting a program right now for kids who find riding a horse a good way to gain strength, confidence and positive social interaction.
“I’m going to keep working hard to develop my dream,” said Cheryl. “When I see the joy and happiness on the faces of these kids, that just makes me more determined to make this program a reality.”
For more information about Hoof Prints of Hope, call Cheryl at (715) 588-1601.