How Cheryl Vos partners with horses to change lives
BY TIMI ECKES
Editor, Northwoods ‘boomers and Beyond
When Cheryl Vos was asked during a retreat in high school what she thought her purpose in life was, she had a ready answer.
“I remember telling the group leader I wanted to change the world and make it a better place,” she says.
Years later, on a sunny May afternoon at her home several miles from Minocqua, Cheryl tosses hay to her horses. They munch contentedly as she recalls how these animals have helped her fulfill her purpose and how they have impacted the lives of many kids.
As a child herself, Cheryl saw that the world needed changing. Her parents took in foster children and Cheryl grew up around troubled kids. “Our home was the last stop before juvie,” she says.
The memory of one of those kids in particular has had a profound impact on her. He had lived with Cheryl’s family since he was 3 years old. When he was 12, he was awarded back to his mother, who, after a few months, packed him off to a school for troubled boys. He then became heavily involved with drugs and was never able to triumph over his demons. His turbulent life and tragic end haunt Cheryl to this day, and troubled kids occupy a special place in her heart.
“That’s always been in my head,” she says. “He died alone in an abandoned building with no heat.”
Animals are also dear to Cheryl, and her childhood neighbors allowed her to ride their two ponies.
“I started riding when I was three,” she says. “My mom said she thought I was born saying ‘horse.’” The ponies she rode beginning at that tender age were named Cookie and Ginger. “I can still see them now,” she says. “Horses have always been a part of my life.” Her neighbors’ generosity would impact her life in a way they might not have anticipated.
Eventually, Cheryl got married and had four kids of her own. After her youngest daughter went to school full time, Cheryl became involved with youth and family ministry, organizing and leading mission trips and family retreats, and working with kids in middle and high school. “I fell in love with teenagers,” she says.
“Everybody thought I was crazy because I loved teenagers.”
She wanted horses back in her life and acquired Sadie, a mare who she says taught her that she had a lot to learn about horses – and herself. “We’ve domesticated them, but not so far that they’ve lost their natural instincts,” she says. “If you start learning to read horses, you’ll see they’re reflecting stuff inside you that needs to change. They mirror your soul.”
Cheryl realized how horses could help troubled kids and those with special needs. She earned certification from PATH (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship) International and in 2010 she founded Hoof Prints of Hope, a 501(c) (3) nonprofit. The organization offers horse-related activities for those facing emotional or other life challenges, and for people with cognitive and developmental disabilities.
“When the kids come, they don’t just learn to ride,” Cheryl says. “They learn what it takes to take care of a horse.”
There are three therapy horses in the Hoof Prints of Hope therapy program. Cheryl and dedicated volunteers hold therapy sessions at a friend’s farm in Arbor Vitae on Saturdays in the summer. One of the horses has her own sad past. Skye, a pretty Welsh mountain pony-Arabian cross, had been abused before Cheryl acquired her and it was a long time before Cheryl earned the shy horse’s trust. In the process of working with children who need her help, Skye herself has gained confidence.
Horses’ sensitivity and intelligence are part of the reason why equine-assisted activities are popular methods of therapy for people with disabilities and those with post-traumatic stress disorder or other psychological issues. People recognized the healing power of horses long ago. Centuries before the birth of Christ, the Greek physician Hippocrates wrote about the therapeutic value of horses.
There haven’t been many quantitative studies done on the therapeutic effects of equine assisted activities, and researchers say there isn’t a lot of empirical evidence that such activities have all the benefits that proponents claim.
Those involved with this kind of therapy, however, have no doubt about what happens when troubled kids or those with disabilities experience the healing power of being around horses. Cheryl readily ticks off a list of people whose lives have changed after working with the horses.
There’s the young girl who has been coming to Hoof Prints of Hope to ride since 2010. In the process, Cheryl says, the girl’s confidence has soared.
“I had another little guy on the autism spectrum,” she adds, noting that the child was nonverbal when he began riding. But as he learned to command a horse, he began to communicate for the first time in his life.
Last year Cheryl took on a couple of kids with cerebral palsy. The youngsters lacked core strength, but by the end of the summer, one of them could sit up straight in the saddle. It was a major milestone. “It takes a lot of time and a lot of patience,” Cheryl says, explaining that each special needs child requires help from three Hoof Prints of Hope volunteers. The volunteers forge strong bonds with the kids. “They become part of a bigger family.”
Although Hoof Prints of Hope has made a difference in the lives many kids and their families, Cheryl admits its future is in question. With expenses like feed and farrier services, caring for each therapy horse has a high price tag. Including the cost of insurance, it takes about $6,000 a year to run Hoof Prints of Hope. Fund raising is a necessary part of keeping the organization going, and Cheryl does a lot of it. Everything she does for the organization is on a volunteer basis, she notes. “Everything we get ends up going back to the horses.”
Then there’s the challenge of operating Hoof Prints of Hope from the farm in Minocqua. “It’s hard to do something out of somebody else’s home,” Cheryl says. It has long been her dream to buy a 10-acre parcel of land closer to her home and construct a covered building in which to work with the children and the horses.
In the past, parents of certain special needs children had received funds from the state to pay for this kind of therapy. As Cheryl understands it, the state has eliminated that funding to those parents. She wanted Hoof Prints of Hope to also help kids in the foster care system, but there is no state funding for that. Cheryl and her husband have supported the organization with their own money, and she isn’t sure how much longer they can continue to do so.
This summer, though, kids will continue to come and ride the horses, gaining stronger bodies, new skills and confidence. Looking back, Cheryl sees that any act of kindness, no matter how random it may seem, has far more significance than is often realized. “If it wasn’t for horse people who took me in, I wouldn’t have been able to ride a horse,” she says. Hoof Prints of Hope likely would not exist.
Whatever the future holds for Hoof Prints of Hope, there is no doubt that Cheryl knew what she was talking about when she told that group leader back in high school what her purpose in life was.
“When I was young, I thought I would have to travel off to a Third World country and was sad it didn’t happen,” she says.
Later, Cheryl thought the mission trips she led would be the way she made a difference. “Those trips were amazing, but I have come to realize something. All I had to do is open my eyes and see with my heart that there are hurting, lonely and hungry people all around us,” she says. “I don’t have to travel anywhere to change the world to make it better; I need to start here and help those who are all around me. That is the pebble in the lake that can start the ripple to make the whole world a better place. My partners are my horses.”
For more information about Hoof Prints of Hope, visit facebook.com/hoofprintsofhope.