Stony Lake Therapeutic Riding Center is a member of Great Lakes Energy. Their willingness to overcome challenges and serve their community not only embodies the principles of cooperatives but challenges us all to do the same.
By 8 a.m., the majority of the 80 horses at Stony Lake Stables are brought in from pasture for a meal before being groomed and saddled. The horses are then staged according to the day’s schedule which has all been arranged through online appointments, allowing the staff to select horses according to the size and skill level of the groups registered.
“We are family-focused and accommodate kids as young as three years old.” Says Jeff Bays, President of Stony Lake Stables and Stony Lake Therapeutic Riding Center. “You really have to have the right horses and staff.”
The riding center sits on 280 acres of private property and has a long legacy of annually returning riders and families.
“We have generations of families returning to maintain the memories they had of riding here as a kid. A lot of families we see returning every year. We love it. We want people to feel like family while they are here.”
Jeff’s son, Jacob, was only seven years old when he began experiencing severe health complications. Much of the family’s time was spent at the University of Michigan Hospital dealing with his condition, ultimately resulting in a liver transplant. Jacob is doing great now, but the time spent at the hospital was eye-opening to the Bayses.
We realized there are so many kids and families whose lives are really tough for them. Our eyes were closed to that.
“We kept thinking about the kids we saw at U of M, some who had spent years in the hospital, living so differently from our way of life. We live out in the country and in many ways our work has kept us tied to a routine that in a sense left us ‘sheltered.’ We realized there are so many kids and families whose lives are really tough for them. Our eyes were closed to that,” Jeff says. “Following Jacob’s recovery, we wanted to make a difference for the people we met at the hospital, and others like them, that were struggling with challenges imposed on their lives. We believe God gives us all different gifts and abilities and thought that with the resources we have – horses, property, and know-how – that we could put together a therapy program and make a real difference.”
Noticing an opportunity, Jeff set a course to align his resources and create the Stony Lake Therapeutic Riding Center. The hope was to truly be impactful in the lives of those facing challenges.
“One of our staff members, Aubrey, was going to school to become a recreational therapist. She already had a great deal of knowledge in assisting and working with kids with life challenges, and we wondered if there was an opportunity to partner together in a greater capacity.”
Together, they developed a plan. Aubrey continued her schooling with a focus on equine therapy. In the summers, she would come back and work with kids with life challenges at the stables, incorporating recreational and equine therapy into a transformative experience.
Equine therapy is really special. You can essentially work with people of any age, disability, or illness. The range is huge, and there are huge benefits because of that.
“Equine therapy is really special. You can essentially work with people of any age, disability, or illness. The range is huge, and there are huge benefits because of that. Our students typically experience growth in confidence, muscle and core strength, improvement of fine motor skills, and even social benefits like interviewing and acquiring job skills,” says Aubrey.
Jeff adds, “There is a tremendous emotional benefit to the kids. There is a huge ‘I can do it all by myself’ factor. Kids with life challenges have some bigger hurdles to overcome. They are oftentimes timid, nervous, and afraid at the start of the program, but they are so proud of themselves after the end of a session.”
The therapeutic riding program caters to students with cerebral palsy, autism, down syndrome, brain injuries, those who are blind, and essentially any other child with a life challenge that falls between. Volunteers assist Aubrey in her sessions, and it is not uncommon for three additional sets of hands to take part in a single student’s 50-minute weekly session.
Faces light up. We find so much joy watching these kids beam from ear to ear.
“These are normal kids, just like us,” Jeff explains. “They just have a different set of challenges every day. You would be amazed when you see a child with such severe autism who struggles to go out to a restaurant, can learn to ride a horse by themselves and be filled with such pride and confidence. When he takes a 1,000-pound horse and can control it by himself, his self-esteem is boosted. Faces light up. We find so much joy watching these kids beam from ear to ear.”
“It’s huge, the confidence kids get from riding,” Aubrey adds, “When they start to learn how to control a horse, they realize their actions matter and that they can make a difference. If they stay with the same horse, they become friends. Horses are literally just giant dogs. They are emotional. They remember the kids and are insanely smart. Their demeanor changes depending on who is with them. The horses we pair with students are really relaxed, and so are the kids.”
After a few summers, the need for further change became evident. The students were growing by leaps and bounds every summer. But once the season was over, the time away from the horses during the winter months would take its toll on the students.
“After the kids wrapped up their sessions and finished for winter, we had to start over from square one in May. It felt like the progress we made was lost. Like we had to start back from scratch,” Jeff confessed. “We’re making a difference, but are we helping long-term. Three, five, seven years from now? What do we need to do to go year-round?”
In 2019, Jeff put the program on hold to organize and plan for success. He called neighbors with big barns and asked to rent their facilities. They were open, but hauling horses and tack throughout winter, moving all the equipment, and no real access to restrooms made the team realize that more needed to be done. Eventually, Jeff connected with a friend who had a canvas topped hoop building and, after a lengthy discussion, decided building one on the farm could work.
The indoor arena was constructed this spring with therapeutic riding sessions slated to begin again in late July. There are currently more than 25 students signed up, some who travel hours just to take part.
I love seeing horses become such a huge part of these kids’ lives.
“I love building relationships with my students. I love seeing horses become such a huge part of these kids’ lives,” says Aubrey. “Seeing all the progress and wins for these kids after their sessions and hearing all the positive feedback from their teachers, it really is a huge blessing for sure.”
Jeff hopes to one day provide the sessions free of charge to families. Through enough community grants like the $3,000 student scholarship from the Great Lakes Energy People Fund, that just might be a possibility.
“When we see the joy they have when a session is over, it’s worth it.” Jeff explains. “To see how the kids are finding joy with their families in this, to see the kids grow in strength, ability, and self-esteem, that is what motivates us. We all have different gifts and abilities. We can’t do a lot, but what we can do is provide an equine program to facilitate growth and development in children with life challenges.”
Caring For Our Community Through The People Fund
At the date of this blog post, GLE members have donated more than 3.7 million dollars back to their communities through a grant funding program called the ‘People Fund’. People Fund grants are funded with “extra change” donated by members who have their Great Lakes Energy bill rounded up to the next dollar. Some even opt for more! Many of these grants have been awarded to promote activity and use of facilities that would get our members outside and active.
Interested in contributing to your community? Visit our People Fund page to learn more.