The riders of the 29th Annual Music Country Grand Prix presented by Tractor Supply Company (held at Brownland Farm in Franklin Tennessee) make it look easy, tackling towering jumps and tricky combinations with seemingly no more effort than it would take to rise from a chair. These are Olympic-caliber competitors—riders and horses both—and the athleticism and skill they demonstrate in the arena have the audience captivated. More than 1,000 onlookers are rapt, taking in the action from the patrons’ tent, sideline cabanas, arena rails, and golf carts—wherever they can snag a seat—groaning in solidarity when a rail falls and cheering enthusiastically when a rider makes a clean round. Though the day’s action is taking place in the arena, the true heart of the Music Country Grand Prix is actually located a few miles away, up a hilly country road. From spectators to competitors to a cadre of volunteers, everyone attending the event is there for one cause: to support and raise funds for the Saddle Up! therapeutic riding center.
A dream come true
Saddle Up! is Middle Tennessee’s oldest and largest therapeutic riding program; it’s been changing the lives of special equestrians for more than 25 years. The PATH Intl. Premier Accredited Center offers therapeutic riding, hippotherapy, equine-assisted learning, and week-long skills programs for children ages 18 and younger who have documented disabilities. Any child eligible for the program can ride, regardless of financial ability. The center’s myriad programs have a united goal, explained in Saddle Up!’s slogan: Saddle Up! is a place “where all children are equal in the saddle!”
In the late 1980s, Saddle Up! existed only as a dream shared by four visionaries—Alton Kelley, Nancy Wennberg, Charles Crafton and Lynne Evans—who saw the need for a therapeutic riding service in their community.
Alton recounts the anxiety and excitement of those early days: “We had no funds, no students, no location, barn, tack or ponies! We had no staff or even a name! What we did have was faith. Faith in the children we hoped to serve, faith in each other, in our co-founders, and the community to embrace this program. We had faith that the good Lord truly loved ponies and kids and would smile upon us…and smile He did!”
Through late nights, hard work, a little prayer, and enthusiastic volunteers and donors, Saddle Up! got its start in November 1989. And through the decades, it grew from a modest program that required borrowed horses, barns, and tack, to one of the largest providers of its kind in Tennessee and an aspirational example of a thriving therapeutic riding program.
Today, Saddle Up! serves more than 270 children through 4,400 year-round lessons. Since 2000, the program has called River Run Farm home—a beautiful 34-acre property with an indoor arena (that would make any equestrian jealous), 27 stalls, an outdoor ring, an obstacle course, lush pastures, and plenty of space for training and lessons. A small army of 500 volunteers keeps the production running smoothly, helping with everything from lessons to barn management to office work. In 2016, volunteers logged an incredible 16,121 hours of work, an incredible testament to the community’s support of Saddle Up!. Of course, the program wouldn’t be possible without its beloved equine staff, which typically ranges from 23–26 horses.
Making it all possible
Running such a large organization, and keeping it solvent, requires significant funds, and large fundraising events like the Music Country Grand Prix ensure that Saddle Up! will be able to serve riders for decades to come.
“The exposure is wonderful for us,” says Saddle Up!’s Executive/Development Assistant Ramsey Raybeck. “We couldn’t do what we do without the funding and donations from this event. More than that, it’s great to see the community, volunteers, and companies come together to support us. That’s just really special.”
Since the Music Country Grand Prix’s inception in 1990, Saddle Up! has been the beneficiary of charitable dollars raised from the event, which has attracted top riders such as Margie Goldstein, Aaron Vale, Richard Cheska, and Daniel Bedoya. This year’s winner was 19-year old Louise Graves riding the 13-year-old Dutch Warmblood mare Zavira. Sponsors, too, come from all over the country to support the event. From national brands, like Grand Champion Sponsor Tractor Supply Company and Blue Ribbon Sponsor Nutrena, to regional companies, business and individual sponsors are invaluable to the show’s success. And successful it is—since 2004, the Music Country Grand Prix has raised more than $1.6 million for Saddle Up!
Though charts and pie graphs can explain—in quantifiable, objective terms—how the fundraised money is being spent, the most important metric to measure the value of charitable donations is the stories of the children who benefit from Saddle Up!’s services.
Ramsey shares the story of one rider, adopted from Haiti, who was missing a leg and given a prosthesis. The parents enrolled him in Saddle Up!, simply wanting to provide him a safe environment, but his progress—physically and emotionally—exceeded all expectations. Ramsey notes how wonderful it was to see him make a connection with the horses.
“One day he got off his horse and had his nose buried in the horse’s neck—for a long time! We asked, ‘What are you doing?’ and he responded, ‘The horse just smells so good!’
“Any opportunity like that, where a child can make a connection with an animal, is so important. The children get such a feeling of freedom and confidence, and that’s the hallmark of what we do.”
Tom Bosse's son Connor is an 11-year veteran of the program. Connor has cerebral palsy, and when he started riding with Saddle Up! at the age of 5, he lacked the coordination and strength to ride unassisted. He required side walkers to stabilize him on the horse as he was led around the arena. Now, at 16, Connor can ride independently and even competes on his own horse.
“We’re so blessed to have this program,” says Tom. “It’s amazing to watch the things that are accomplished there. I’ve seen little kids who have never spoken a word have no trouble at all speaking to their horses. To watch the expression of parents who hear their child speak for the first time is just phenomenal.”
For Connor, the best part of Saddle Up! is getting to ride his favorite horse, Hershey, and making new friends.
Deborah Newman is another Saddle Up! parent. Her daughter, Emily, has Down syndrome, and has been riding at Saddle Up! for 10 years, since she was 4. Deborah had no idea exactly how much her daughter would be able to accomplish through horses.
“I thought it would be fun for her to ride a horse!” Deborah laughs. “But what I found in those first couple rides was that they covered more in an hour than hours of speech, physical, and occupational therapy combined.”
Like Connor, Emily required the use of a leader and side walkers when she first began riding. Now she rides independently, and loves to do so on her favorite horse, Oscar.
Both Deborah and Tom praise horses for what they are able to offer children—both the tangible and intangible, the physical and the emotional.
“Of course there’s the physical therapy element,” says Deborah. “Horses are able to provide the feeling of walking and engage those muscles in a very natural way. But there’s also something more than that, something that’s transformational. Providing the opportunity to connect with a horse breaks through barriers and allows students to excel in something that's unique.”
“And it’s not just the Saddle Up! horses,” says Tom. “Connor has ridden grand prix horses and it’s like they automatically know when someone gets on their back who needs special attention. They somehow just know and adapt.”
What Saddle Up! provides is more than therapy, says Deborah. It shifts the perspective from what riders can’t do to everything they can do. They learn skills, make friends, and gain confidence.
“The kids don’t even realize they’re getting therapy,” says Deborah. “My daughter is there because she loves horses and just wants to ride.”
Regardless of discipline or experience, whether able-bodied or living with a disability, “loving horses and just wanting to ride” is a feeling all equestrians can relate to. Like Saddle Up!’s slogan says, we’re all equal in the saddle.