ENID, Okla. — About 1,200 people gathered Saturday at Bennie’s Barn, 4914 E. Rupe, for the sixth annual Sleigh Rides with Santa fundraiser.
Bennie's Barn was founded in July 2014 in memory of Bennie Mullins, who served the Enid community as passionately as the organization named in her honor. By encouraging appropriate interaction with the horses, riders, volunteers, instructors and students develop the skills required to build meaningful relationships.
Chip Baker, executive director of Bennie's Barn, said Sleigh Rides with Santa started as a way to introduce the facility, its horses and therapeutic riding programs to the Enid community.
"When we opened in 2014, we did this as a way to allow the public to find out about Bennie's Barn and meet the horses," Baker said, "and it transformed into our biggest fundraiser we have all year."
The event helps provide scholarships for children whose families cannot afford to pay for therapeutic riding sessions.
"A lot of our kids can't afford it, because it's not covered by health insurance yet," Baker said, "and when they can't afford it we don't want to turn them away."
Riders — children, adults and veterans — who come to Bennie's Barn benefit in a number of ways from their interaction with the horses.
Caring for horses encourages an understanding and practice of good habits that are transferred to everyday life. Responsibility is developed by participating in the care and feeding of the horses.
Students must adapt to and exert control over the horse and, as a result, they gain improved focus concentration, judgment and reasoning. Each rider has a teaching team during each lesson.
A certified therapeutic riding instructor works along with specially trained and dedicated volunteers to develop and implement a riding curriculum for each student. Lessons are adapted to specially meet each student’s needs and goals.
Another purpose of Bennie’s Barn is to rescue and rehabilitate abused, neglected and displaced horses and use those horses, and the process of rehabilitation, to minister to the emotional and spiritual needs of mentally and physically disabled children and veterans. Bennie’s Barn also provides a place for children to learn and care for horses.
Baker said staff and volunteers, with support from community donations, have saved and rehabilitated more than 60 horses since 2014. Some of those were taken in from situations of abuse and neglect, Baker said, while others were donated by elderly horse owners who no longer were able to care for them. Bennie's Barn currently has 27 horses in its stables.
Saturday, the horses were busy entertaining visitors — some horses by being petted, some by being repeatedly fed carrots.
Fred Petrolia brought his pair of draft horses, Brutus and Sarge, from PAW Farms of Hennessey, to pull visitors on wagon rides with Santa.
Petrolia said he's participated in Sleigh Rides with Santa, with the help of Janice Waldrop, since Bennie's Barn opened. He keeps coming back, he said, to see the joy the horses bring to visitors — both kids and adults.
"Just to see the smiles on their faces is worth a million bucks," Petrolia said. "It's great."
Brittany Smith, of Enid, brought her children, Joshua Jordan, 4, and Jaelynn Jordan, 12, to enjoy the activities and meet the horses.
Jaelynn said she most liked the horses, "because they're pretty," while Joshua was most excited about feeding carrots to the horses.
Koldyn Schapansky, 6, said the event was fun, but he had a clear favorite part of the day: "They let me pet the horses."
Krisy McCarthy, a volunteer at Bennie's Barn for about four years, paused to visit with the News & Eagle Saturday after helping six-year-old Adelynn Kenyon feed carrots to Barbie, one of the therapy horses.
McCarthy said she enjoys volunteering at Bennie's Barn because of the difference it makes in riders' lives.
"I love seeing miracles happen out here every day," McCarthy said. "You always see something new, and people are constantly pushing themselves further than they ever thought possible. It's amazing. It's addictive, it really is."
She said the therapy at Bennie's Barn isn't just for the riders.
"If you need a place to get away and relax, this is the place to do it," she said, "by helping others and helping horses."
Elizabeth Solorio, who's been volunteering at Bennie's Barn for three years, and now is a freshman at Northwestern Oklahoma State University in Alva, was busy Saturday reading "The Night Before Christmas" to children at the event.
She said volunteering at Bennie's Barn brings benefits that go both ways.
"It just brings a lot of joy to me and the riders," Solorio said.
Baker said volunteers always are needed at Bennie's Barn, and volunteers do not have to have any previous experience with horses.
"We train everyone who comes out here," Baker said. "As long as they're willing to help, we'd love to have them here."
Volunteers must be at least 13 years old to work in the barn, and at least 16 years old to be trained to assist in therapeutic riding sessions.
Services provided at Bennie's Barn include:
• Therapeutic riding: Using horse’s power to help with physical, cognitive, social and emotional goals.
• Therapy services: PATH-certified instructors utilize equine movement to address impairments, functional limitations and neuromotor and sensory dysfunction.
• Changing Leads: Using equine-facilitated learning to encourage at-risk youth to explore emotions and behaviors in a secure environment.
• Riding in the Moment: Facilitates adults facing challenges of aging or injury.
• Step-Up Riding Academy: Public riding lessons.
• Horses for Heroes: Equine therapy for wounded service personnel and veterans who suffer from PTSD, combat stress, sexual assault, hazing trauma and trauma of being a provider.
To volunteer at Bennie's Barn, contact Chip Baker at (580) 548-7258, email email@example.com, or go to https://www.benniesbarn.org. Bennie’s Barn is a registered 501(c)(3) organization, and all donations are tax deductible.