Most teens look forward to the day they can buy a car. Anne Vandekatsey dreamed about owning a horse. Growing up in small farming communities in North Carolina and New Jersey, Vandekatsey started saving money by doing odd jobs, cleaning stables, shining shoes, anything she could find. By the time she was 16, her dream came true. “I bought a 12-year-old palomino named Buttercup for $200. She hadn’t been ridden in six years. And that’s not a good thing.”
Vandekatsey knew she wanted to be around animals for the rest of her life and studied to become a veterinarian technician. “Things were different in the ’70s. The field was so new, we were able to do a lot more than they can today. Everything from surgeries to lab work, which I loved.”
But it wasn’t until her twin nephews were born that she learned about the real power of animals. The boys suffered from Duchenne muscular dystrophy and were unable to walk. “I remember my brother taking them to see a therapy horse named Taco and what a calming effect he had on them.”
After retiring and moving to Naples, Vandekatsey remembers getting an eye exam and while sitting in the doctor’s office, she noticed a photo of a child on a pony. She found out her physician was on the board of directors for the Naples Therapeutic Riding Center (NTRC) and that the child was one of the students. After a lengthy conversation, Vandekatsey promised to send her resume and soon became a volunteer at the center.
“Animals are 100% pure of heart and soul and people feel it. Horses are like people. Raise them with love and respect, and they will reward you. This place is magical. It takes a lot of effort and dedication from a lot of people to make it happen, but I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”
Horses are Healers.When children and adults spend time with the NTRC’s 16-horse therapy herd, whether they struggle physically, emotionally, or socially, they offer a space for connection, compassion, and strength-building that paints smiles on the faces of their participants, proud family members, and hundreds of volunteers and donors who support them. Through innovation, expansion, and the generosity of the community, NTRC now helps more than 800 children and adults aged 4-82 with special needs and a range of emotional, learning, and developmental disabilities.
“Equine assisted therapy is a fast-growing, innovative approach utilizing the most cutting-edge science to advance healing,” said Missy Lamont, NTRC Executive Director. “It is now being used across the nation for everything from trauma and addiction to autism and multiple sclerosis.”
In addition to helping people with physical and learning disabilities, veterans, victims of trauma and individuals with behavioral health challenges are now reaping the benefits of equine therapy.
Whether practicing mindfulness, teaching responsibility, processing the loss of a loved one, or learning to walk, NTRC’s programs are growing and community support is more important than ever.
As the relationship with horses and humans continues to evolve, more volunteers and financial support is needed to keep pace with the demand and expansion of its campus and programs.
For more information on programs or volunteer opportunities, visit NaplesTherapeuticRidingCenter.org or call 239.596.2988.
Anne has a message for those thinking about becoming a volunteer at NTRC. “It may not be for everyone, but if you are looking to make a difference, this is the place.”