Horse Power

5 minutes

A brown-haired boy fidgets with anticipation. He cranes his neck this way and that, hoping to spot his friend Zyro and exchange their “cowboy handshake.”

“We’re friends,” says Ayden by way of explanation. “We met a long time ago.”

The pair have been getting together once a week at The Right Path for nearly three years. That’s a long time in the life of an eight-year-old but not quite so long for Zyro, the twenty-year-old horse who towers over his young friend. But their bond is solid in Ayden’s eyes, and the ritual handshake—the horse’s velvety snuffling of the boy’s offered hand—confirms it.

Determined to keep services free for clients, The Right Path staff relies on individual donors, grants, sponsorships, and fundraisers. Photo by Valerie Wei-Haas

Determined to keep services free for clients, The Right Path staff relies on individual donors, grants, sponsorships, and fundraisers. Photo by Valerie Wei-Haas

It’s all about building trust between horses and humans at The Right Path in Drumright, a nonprofit that provides equine-assisted therapy free to those living with challenges like autism, blindness, cerebral palsy, and Down syndrome.

“I never knew this type of stuff—horse therapy—existed,” says Tyler Hopkins, who spent eighteen months in Iraq and struggles with PTSD.

Hopkins volunteers at The Right Path while also participating in Hooves on the Ground, a program geared toward veterans and first responders. It has helped him move forward and find purpose.

“There’s something extremely soothing about making a bond with another creature that doesn’t involve any stressors. You get to work on building relationships here, and those skills carry over into the rest of your life,” he says.

It may take several sessions before a youngster is willing to even sit in a saddle, but the horses are in no hurry. Most of them join the therapy herd as retirees who are gifted to the program. Zyro and his nine or so stablemates have been ranch horses, reining horses, and barrel racers. River, a Clydesdale, was part of a Wells Fargo stagecoach team. When a new horse arrives, Bonnie Weeks, TRP’s class coordinator, is tasked with conditioning them to remain calm no matter what comes their way.

“As the horse gets to know you, they show you cues, like lowering their heads as a sign of affection. You can tell they are happy to be here,” says Hopkins.

It’s a win-win situation for The Right Path’s founder, Leslie Kirkland, as well. More than two decades ago, she and her husband Don left suburban life in Broken Arrow for an acreage in Drumright.

“I started with two horses, four riders, an outdoor round pen, and an idea of helping some kids on horses,” Kirkland says. “I am blown away when I think about where we started and where we are now.”

The retired physical therapist now oversees 160 acres with multiple buildings and arenas and five distinct programs that served almost ninety individuals last year. The core program, William’s Walk, works with area schools and individual adults. Another program, Horse Tales, pairs Title One first graders with equine reading buddies. As director, Kirkland has carefully guided The Right Path to meet her own exacting standards—and those of the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship.

“It’s not one size fits all,” says Kirkland, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis as a teenager. “We build the program to the child.”

With more than a hundred devoted volunteers, a handful of part-time employees, and a large helping of horse magic, The Right Path offers acceptance and support surrounded by beautiful countryside and the smell of fresh hay.

“It’s not just the horses,” Hopkins says. “Obviously, they play a big role, but it’s the atmosphere, and it’s the people. It’s like being a part of a loving family.”

And possibly getting a cowboy handshake to boot.

Get There
The Right Path, 16620 Old Shamrock Highway in Drumright or
Written By
Margaret Skay Hartley

Margaret Skay Hartley