The 81-acre ranch in Buckingham County, operated by LaRue Sprouse Dowd, has belonged in the Sprouse family for many generations. After gaining years of experience working, training, competing, and teaching in the horse industry and studying Veterinary Technology, Equine Therapy, and Horsemanship, LaRue returned to the ranch in 2006 and worked with her family to restore the property and create a fully-functional horse operation.
Anyone who visits Sprouse’s Corner today will be greeted by a clean barn, a tidy tack room, and several large pastures. While the ranch offers an array of services to the community including boarding, youth camps, trail rides, three on-farm shows per year, and lessons for a variety of disciplines and skill levels, the operation offers one program with a particularly deep impact on everyone it touches—the Heartland Horse Heroes therapeutic riding program.
LaRue became interested in initiating a therapeutic riding program after hearing about the success of a dog therapy program in Farmville and learning of a need for horse-based therapy in the area. Starting in 2009, the ranch underwent an intensive inspection from PATH, or the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International, so that it could be accredited for use in a therapeutic program. LaRue also passed a rigorous testing program in order to become a PATH Registered Instructor. Thus, the Heartland Horse Heroes therapeutic riding program at Sprouse’s Corner Ranch was born.
Heartland Horse Heroes provides riding lessons and activities for youth with physical, mental, emotional, and social challenges or learning disabling conditions. In fact, the nonprofit program is so successful that Buckingham County Public Schools brings students to the ranch weekly for ninety-minute lessons. The students spend half of their time learning in an on-site classroom and half of their time on horseback.
Volunteers are an integral part of Heartland Horse Heroes because most of the youth in the program are still learning to ride independently. This means that each horse and rider pair needs one volunteer to lead the horse and two side walkers to support the rider. Each lesson with ten riders requires thirty volunteers. Many students from Longwood University’s recreational therapy program volunteer with Heartland Horse Heroes, but LaRue is always grateful when members of the community come to the ranch to offer their time, resources, and support.
The volunteers of Heartland Horse Heroes are looking forward to expanding their scope by initiating a program in April for at-risk youth called “Inner City Slickers.” This program, created by former Three Dog Night drummer Michael McMeel, provides an opportunity for at-risk youth to learn about horses, work with mentors, and complete growth challenges. Participants learn the “cowboy way” of kindness, hard work, responsibility, and perseverance. Follow-up with participants will be a critical part of the program as it grows at Heartland Horse Heroes.
While Sprouse’s Corner Ranch enjoys celebrating the successes of the youth and adults who learn, train, and show at the facility, the accounts coming out of Heartland Horse Heroes are particularly uplifting to the parents, teachers, and volunteers who work with the program’s riders. LaRue tells the story of one participant who did not speak while at school, but who would arrive at the farm each week and readily ask about her favorite horse, saying “Where’s Peaches? Can I groom Peaches? Can I ride Peaches today?” Another child in the program struggled with handwriting at school. After she developed muscle tone from holding the reins while riding, her handwriting improved and her teacher took note. Therapeutic riding encourages students to build and strengthen some of the same muscles that are used in everyday life, and students who participate in Heartland Horse Heroes are motivated to grow and improve by their enjoyment of riding. They also gain confidence from the experience of working with a large animal.
Running Sprouse’s Corner Ranch and Heartland Horse Heroes is not the only thing keeping LaRue active in the community. She is also the leader of Pegasus 4-H Horse and Pony club. The club is open to any youth who love horses and enjoy learning about them, even if they do not have access to animals of their own. LaRue helps club members participate in local educational clinics, shows, and 4-H knowledge contests such as Horse Bowl that teach participants about animal science and foster communication skills.
Sprouse’s Corner is one of the many horse facilities across the state that provides a valuable platform for learning and skill development. Without people like LaRue who enjoy teaching and without facilities in the region suitable for horse programs, youth would have limited opportunities to spend constructive time outdoors learning the responsibility, confidence, and leadership that come from working with horses. Heartland Horse Heroes has opened the door of opportunity in Central Virginia even wider, indelibly touching the lives of the many children who join LaRue Dowd and her volunteers at the ranch each week.