(This story was originally published in December 2017 on MiamiStories.net.)
Whispering Manes, a therapeutic horseback riding nonprofit located in Miami Horse Country, has since its inception served hundreds of riders with special needs.
It began in 2010 when Nancy Hector, a philanthropist and champion of children’s causes, decided to create a service to meet the needs of children and adults with disabilities through interactions with horses. She chose its location in Miami Horse Country, situated on five acres in unincorporated Miami-Dade County, because of its centrality, according to Executive Director Erin Bauer.
“Her primary interest has always been in the foster care system, and her daughter happened to be a horseback rider, so she recognized the benefits for her daughter in working with horses in terms of the way she felt–her confidence, her self-esteem,” said Bauer, Whispering Manes’ founding director. “She believed that all children should have access to something like that–something that makes them feel good about themselves–and together we’ve built this organization so that we could service children and adults with special needs.”
In 2011, Hector hired Bauer, a licensed veterinarian with more than 15 years in private practice. That same year, the center was formally established as a federally recognized nonprofit corporation. By the year’s end, a board of directors was formed; Robin Bramson, a PATH International certified therapeutic riding instructor, was hired; and Edel Cuesta, a full-time groomer, was brought on.
Whispering Manes formally opened on Jan. 23, 2012. The center serves close to 80 riders aged 5-70 weekly, according to Bauer, with program enrollees participating in equine-assisted activities from groups including the Veterans Administration Medical Center, the Down Syndrome Association of Miami, residents with cerebral palsy, private individuals and participants from multiple local special education schools.
The organization draws from more than 60 volunteers from local service organizations to aid people with physical, cognitive, developmental and emotional disabilities.
Last year, Whispering Manes welcomed approximately 350 participants involved in school day programs, after-school programs, the facility’s summer camp and programs for adults transitioning out of the foster care system.
Three programs are offered at Whispering Manes:
- A mounted therapeutic horseback riding program designed to build confidence, self-esteem and leadership skills while teaching riders to independently ride a horse.
- A primarily unmounted therapeutic horsemanship program in which students develop confidence, leadership, horse knowledge and social interaction.
- A mounted program designed specifically for current and former members of the military in which veterans learn to ride and groom horses with the option to apply to become a future volunteer.
Both 60-minute group and 30-minute private practices are available in programs that are chosen based on the needs and stamina of the riders.
“Some can’t ride for an hour, so they’re not ready for group classes,” said Bramson. “But in private classes it’s me, the instructor and the rider, and we’re doing a lot more intense one-on-one work. In the group classes, the person rides for longer, so they get the benefit of the movement of the horse for a longer period of time, but they also get a social aspect. There are other people in the class and we do races and have conversations.”
Horses at Whispering Manes are chosen for their calm and outgoing demeanor in order to ensure participants have safe, fulfilling and positive encounters every time they visit, according to Bramson. The horses also undergo desensitization training before becoming available to ride.
“The horses that we use in the program have generally a quiet temperament, so they’re horses that have what we call a low flight response, where if something startles them they don’t try to run away,” she said. “Before anyone gets on the horse, we practice the kind of skills the riders are going to learn until we are sure the horses respond correctly.”
Whispering Manes encompasses outdoor paddock and turnout areas, an covered outdoor riding arena and a 12-stall barn that also contains office and conference rooms.
The facility relies entirely on outside funding. Among its sponsors are The Children’s Trust, Miami Learning Experience School, Coral Gables Community Foundation, Publix, Coca-Cola, Sunset Feed & Supply, South Florida Trail Riders, The Batchelor Foundation, The Equine Practice and Hialeah Park Racing & Casino.
“We want this program to be available to as many people as possible and to as many people who need it that we can offer it to,” said Bauer. “But the horses, the facility, it’s all expensive to run and so we find that we need to do a lot of grant writing and fundraising from individual donors in order to maintain this program and keep the quality high, safe, keep the horses healthy and well taken care of. That all takes a lot of funding. And then there’s the property itself; five acres is a lot to maintain, so that’s always a challenge.”
Whispering Manes Therapeutic Horseback Riding Center is located at 6105 SW 125th Ave. in Miami Horse Country. For more information, to donate or to become a volunteer, visit WhisperingManes.org or call 305-596-4204.