ACCORDING TO THE U.S. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE’S 2012 CENSUS OF AGRICULTURE, THERE ARE 121,034 HORSES IN FLORIDA. There are more horses in Florida than 48 of the other States. Florida ranks fifth the the Country, behind Texas (395,818), Oklahoma (158,918), California (142,555) and Kentucky (141,842).
This same census reports that Indian River County has 942 horses and ponies. There are 66 other counties in Florida.
14 of these 942 horses and ponies in Indian River County have been rescued by Kelly A. Walker, founder of the Indian River Equestrian Foundation (IREF).
Kelly A. Waker
IREF rescues horses and then works with them until they are safe enough to be able to work in their programs, providing hands-on therapy for the youth, elderly and special needs individuals in our community.
What began nine years ago as the Vero Equine Riding Academy, has now expanded into a program for disadvantaged participants to escape reality for a few hours to bond with rescued horses (not to mention three pigs, chickens, a goat, a lamb and a dog.)
Trip wanting a kiss
While Kelly successfully operated her riding academy for eight years, seeing first-hand the effect of horses on children, she began to realize that the child’s experience should not just be about “getting into the saddle and riding into the sunset.”
“There is more to it. The program should not only be about riding, but should also encompass learning how to groom a horse, clean a saddle, keep stalls clean and in general how to work with them.”
Kelly rescued three thoroughbreds, Jerzee Boy, Sneak Around and Trip, from slaughter and two, Quien and Barkley, were surrendered by owners who could not afford them. Barkley was close to just skin and bones.
Tally Ho, a miniature horse who is perfect for helping young children because of her size.
Wanting to share the effect of horses on children, in March, 2015, Kelly transformed her Vero Equine Riding Academy into the Indian River Equestrian Foundation and subsequently achieved a non-profit status.
The Foundation now focuses on bringing its participants to its facility at 8130 8th Street, Vero Beach to provide them with an atmosphere where “they experience something the’ve never done before; to build their confidence and see that the grass is greener on the other side.”
For example, every Monday night from 5:30 – 7:00, 27 children from the Vero Beach Hibiscus Children’s Center visit the foundation to “hang out,” groom the horses and ride them should they choose to do so.
The Hibiscus Center provides a safe environment for new-borns to 12 year olds who have been removed from their families by court order as a result of child abuse and neglect.
Though acknowledging they are a “handful,” the Hibiscus children have a blast. One day they got to ride on a side-by-side through the mud. They learn how to operate a tractor and as Kelly says, “it takes them out of reality for a little bit.”
Every Tuesday from 5:30 – 7:30 Kelly hosts 17 children from the Youth Guidance Mentoring and Activities program, the longest operating mentoring program in Indian River County. Started in 1973, Youth guidance has been serving at risk youth from low income, single parent families for 42 years.
Children who first come to the facility are afraid to go to the horse barn but eventually after a session or two they run to it!
Since these programs are in the evening, Kelly is seeking organizations to sponsor dinners. Spada’s Total Auto Repair, Vero Beach, recently brought pizzas and drinks. Some evenings they have a barbecue. How about your organization sponsoring a meal for a month?
Kelly also hosts the elderly from assisted living facilities, as well as Goodwill sponsored adults with disabilities.
The Arc of Indian River County, which provides support and hope for individuals and families with special needs brought a group out, but recently it hasn’t been on their radar. Kelly has it on her to do list to reach out and remind them to come back.
One elderly man, an Arc participant, was overjoyed when he was kissed by a pig!
Even medical doctors and psychologists visit the facility to observe and study how therapeutic horses provide care and healing to disadvantaged children and adults.
Kelly hopes that families enrolled in Structured Family Recovery will visit the facility. This is a program that transforms recovery of a newly sober alcoholic or addict into a shared journey a family takes together.
Even with these participants, Kelly needs more. She says “she has time for more programs every day.”
While Kelly rescues horses, “we want to provide them with forever home. The participants have enough change in their lives…let’s give them a chance to bond with a horse that will always be there for them.”
For this reason, Kelly’s stable is full. She had to turn away a horse last week and referred the caller to the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Volunteers are a necessity. One volunteer, Amanda Shellbeck, said: “It’s been like my home I’ve been here so long.”
“Volunteering at IREF makes you strong.” Amanda told the story of how she went to Lowes to buy a five gallon bucket of paint. The 20 something year old worker who brought the paint out in a cart couldn’t lift it out to put it in her car. So Amanda reached in and lifted it out.
Funding is a necessity. Despite costing Kelly $ 500/week just for feed and hay for her 13 horses and one donkey, their is no charge to the participants. She relies on donations and is currently seeking a grant to replace damaged fencing and a barbed wire fence.
Boris standing for some pizza
While Kelly did not grow up with a horse, it was always her dream to own one. As a child she said she had “statues and pictures of horses plastered all over her bedroom.” She started riding in high school but didn’t own a horse until she was 20.
Since then they have always played a major role in her life. She has a deep true love for the horses and her animals.
The best complement she ever received, was when one of her students said: “When I die and come back, I want to be one of your horses.”
My daughter Sallie Hardy with Jelly Bean
“There is no better way to heal from a life altering experience than spending time with horses and animals.”
Please call Kelly to volunteer or offer financial support.