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Horse therapy helps 7-year-old through cancer recovery journey

"The horses don't look at you any other way than they look at another individual," an official with the nonprofit said.

STRAWBERRY PLAINS, Tenn. — Hoof and Harness in Strawberry Plains is a non-profit that delivers one of the most intricate and personalized horse therapies in Tennessee.

The farm opened in 2012 to provide therapeutic carriage driving, sensory processing and literacy skills to children who need a helping hand.

"It's a pretty amazing thing when we see the outcomes that we have," Beth Nelson, the owner of Hoof and Harness said.

Holston Haun is a student at Hoof and Harness. He has been attending for a few months and his mother, MaryBeth Haun, said that the organization has been a blessing to their family.

"You're just happy the whole time while you're here," Haun said.

Holston was diagnosed with Leukemia a few years ago. Since then, he has been in recovery; however, it hasn't been an easy journey.

"That treatment has really left him physically behind," Haun said.

Holston spent more than 49 consecutive days in a hospital bed between the ICU and ventilators.

Credit: MaryBeth Haun

"The leukemia, the cancer — it makes you weaker and a bed stay that long makes you even weaker," MaryBeth said.

It was a difficult time for her, watching her son go through so many treatments.

"I didn't think about how you get through it — you just do," Haun said, "And I think as a parent, that's what you have to do."

Now, Holston is re-learning fine motor skills such as how to walk. Most of the time, he uses a red walker. Although he's managed to walk away from it for a short time, his family keeps it close by just in case he needs it.

However, at Hoof and Harness, Holston walked around for the entire program. It is something he couldn't have done just months ago.

"He left his chair today. And he has walked the entire program today," Nelson said. "I want to jump up and down because we're so blessed to be able to do what we do."

"The walker is his security," Haun said. "I mean, that's what helps him feel more confident and secure."

Haun believes something else is providing him the confidence to walk away from his walker for more than an hour at a time.

Nelson was excited about Holston's progress. She has been working closely with Holston for several months.

Their friendship is unmatched.

"He has made me very, very happy," Nelson said.

Nelson said the key behind the confidence is in the horses.

"They provide something that we as individuals can't provide ... they're non-judgemental," Nelson said. "They don't look at you any other way than they look at another individual."

After putting on his helmet, Holston ran his fingers through the miniature horse's mane. Surrounded by volunteers, he was lifted onto the carriage and prepped to ride.

Holston calls the horse track "going into the woods," and he was very excited to go on the journey.

"Come on, Bear," Holston said to the horse.

Holston sat on the carriage with another volunteer who helped him steer the reigns and prompt the horse to walk, trot or slow down.

Along the track, Nelson set up letters and sensory experiences that allow the students to learn as they ride.

"What's that letter?" the volunteer asked Holston.

"E!" he said.

Nelson watched Holston ride from the fence, smiling.

"There's something really unique about horses and I think the way they sense the needs of people," Nelson said.

There are dozens of kids in the program with ability levels across the spectrum.

The organization creates specific lesson plans for each student based upon their needs. For some, the lessons focus on increasing comprehension and sensory skills. For others, they focus on increasing physical strength.

"We've had kids that could not walk, and they are able to get out of their wheelchair now and walk a portion of our program and be able to get stronger," Nelson said.

It's changing Holston's recovery journey.

"If I had to describe it, I would say imagine whatever might be your happy place, and that's this for him," Haun said. "You can come somewhere that's natural and has animals and just be outside, you forget you're even doing work, you forget that you're recuperating and recovering."

Hoof and Harness also offers their program at no cost to the families who need it.

"Many of our students have left circumstances that are very, very hard. And we don't want to turn individuals away because of a fee," Nelson said.

If you support their mission in helping other children strengthen their skills, you can donate on the Hoof and Harness website.

"We're grateful for people who want to donate and support their dream," Haun said. "It helps kids like Holston and all the other ones that you see come through here with something they may not have been able to do otherwise."

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