Cover Story: Unbridled, Unconditional Love
The first thing catching your eye when arriving at the 10-acre farm in Scottsdale is the message “Open Your Heart” on the entry gate. Those words encapsulate the nonprofit’s goal of teaching the world to fear less and love more by creating experiences that allow the heart to open.
Hunkapi started in 1999 after Arizona State University conducted a three-year research study investigating the effect of sport on children with special needs. It found that of all the sports studied, horseback riding was the most positive intervention for improving self-esteem, self-concept and attentional focus. A decision was made to launch a community-based therapeutic riding program grounded in the idea of interrelatedness and the responsibility that emanates from it.
Terra Schaad, the founder and executive director of Hunkapi Programs, was asked to launch the program at ASU and continued at the helm for nearly 10 years until the university canceled the program during the 2008 recession. Schaad took the opportunity to form a nonprofit, shifting the program’s focus from children with special needs to those who have experienced trauma.
“This was a mid-career crisis for me as I evaluated if I had it in me to start this all over again and whether there was anything else I would rather be doing,” she said. “Regardless of how hard I thought this would be, I had to muster the energy to rebuild.” And rebuild she did, with Schaad immediately selling or placing 21 of the 25 horses from the previous program and working as the sole employee out of her garage.
Schaad’s love and appreciation for horses lie at her core, and she attributes their impact to saving her life. A neighbor, who Schaad viewed as a grandfather, opened his farm in Illinois to the poor country kids and allowed them to claim one of his horses as their own. As she didn’t have a strong family unit growing up, this experience changed the trajectory of Schaad’s life, giving her a sense of freedom, the ability to escape and take care of herself, and assertiveness.
“They created a community around me, and those horse people grew to be my family,” she said. “I loved what horses gave to me and how everything melted away when I was around them. I could find a sense of safety, and in that sense of safety, I had capacity to dream and hope, despite what happened in my background.”
Hitting One’s Stride
Fast-forward more than two decades, and you will now find Schaad and her husband, Rob Chavarry, residing on-site at Hunkapi Farm with 35 horses and 52 farm animals that serve as therapeutic aids, including donkeys, chickens, cows, pigs, dogs, cats and a goat. The organization has grown beyond solely horse therapy to provide equine-assisted programs to 300 people per week that include therapeutic riding for children or adults with special needs with a goal of recreation; life skills for children and adults, teaching social skills, boundary setting and assertiveness; and psychotherapy with masters-level therapists addressing clinical goals, such as decreasing symptoms of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Hunkapi’s First Responder Program, now in its 14th cohort, starts to change the culture within the first-responder community and the belief systems around PTSD by helping program participants understand the effect and build-up of energy resulting from regularly overriding the natural fight, flight, freeze response. Horses help first responders understand this biological response and train them how to dissipate and deactivate it from their system so they can be more ready for work the next day.
Those who aren’t interested in horses are welcome to experience the sanctuary of the farm where vegetables are grown and farm-to-table dinners take place, as well as yoga and sound bowl healing. The entire farm connects people to mind, body and spirit in an experiential way. “It’s not cognitive. We’re not teaching people to be in their heads,” Schaad said. “We’re teaching them to experience something and how to integrate that into life.”
Getting to Know the Herd
Animals at the farm share two commonalities with clients at Hunkapi — all come from different walks of life and many, including half of the horses, have experienced trauma. The story of each horse and how it arrived at the farm is different. There are showjumpers that are now retired after what appears to be a privileged life of private grooms and flying all over the world yet have trauma from a performance bar set so high, to kill pen rescues that have been made to pull carts, have babies and been starved. Hunkapi benefits not only people, but the animals as well.
Horses are ideal for aiding in therapy because they are prey animals, with eyes on the sides of their head scanning for danger and nervous systems wired to be attuned to their surroundings. They are not loyal and indicate feeling safe by approaching humans. “When you put a human in the arena with a horse that is a prey animal, they have to internally self-regulate in order to create the desired response from the animal,” Schaad said. “The horse gives them a tool they can walk out of that arena with right away, understanding their responsibility for what they bring in the room.”
Galloping Toward the Future
Hunkapi will continue to go the distance, thanks to the generous hearts and hands of 75 to 100 volunteers on a weekly basis who take care of the horses, serve as instructional aides, or roll up their sleeves to plant gardens or build a fence. The organization’s greatest ongoing need is volunteers, and a wide array of opportunities are offered for those 14 and older.
Schaad has future goals for healing not just in Arizona, but eventually spanning the globe. Hunkapi’s somatic approach to equine healing is now formalized and copyrighted. The curriculum will be available to practitioners, and continuing education units offered when Hunkapi trains clinical staff on how to use the methodology in their own practices.
As Schaad continues to pour her heart into the farm, animals, programs and Hunkapi’s clients, she is unwavering in her commitment to offering engaging experiences to an entire community. “I want people to know we are here,” she said. “I want us to be Arizona’s farm.”
To learn more, visit hunkapi.org.