Jennifer Hansen '94: Changing Lives with Dreams on Horseback
On a 58-acre farm in Blacklick, Ohio, a group of kids are gathered around a horse named Cactus Jack (CJ). They gently pet CJ’s nose, feed him small pieces of carrot, and, with rapt attention, learn how to groom him. It’s a typical scene at Dreams on Horseback, the non-profit organization founded by Jennifer Hansen ’94.
Dreams on Horseback reaches out to disadvantaged youth to provide unique experiences not found in the kids’ neighborhoods. Jennifer explains, “Most kids have never even seen a horse, let alone been able to touch or ride a horse.”
Dreams on Horseback began informally in 1995, serving about 100 children the first year. The inspiration was born when Jennifer volunteered to bring her own horse to a church barn party. She relates, “I was surprised to see the children stand in line, forgoing the other party activities, just to pet the horse. I realized that kids are fascinated by horses, and I wondered how I could reach children who could never dream of having such an opportunity.”
At the time, Jennifer was still practicing law. She began taking her horse to other church functions, and in 2002, she incorporated Dreams on Horseback as a 501(c)(3) organization.
In addition to being fun for kids, interacting with horses teaches life skills and provides a way to reach children who are having problems at home or in school. Jennifer says, “It’s amazing to me how working around horses can literally change lives; it builds confidence and self-esteem. Horses are huge, majestic animals, and kids are taught that they must command respect from the horse in order to be safe. Learning to connect with a horse is a metaphorical learning tool and it helps kids understand how to give and get respect in their own lives.”
Jennifer explains, “Horses are very sensitive animals, and they form quick bonds with people. Horses can reflect emotions like fear and anxiety, so they are able to connect with kids who are traumatized and provide unconditional love for them.”
The horses at Dreams on Horseback also help autistic children. The children interact with the horses on the ground in specially-designed exercises. Jennifer explains, “It is a stunning, life-changing program. During the ground exercises, the kids learn skills such as focus, problem-solving, and communication. The horse reflects how the children are approaching the exercise and how they are interacting with each other. We can then help the kids realize how their actions impact the responses of their friends and family.” Jennifer continues, “Dreams on Horseback staff complete a national certification process through the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA). Other staff members specialize in working with children on the autistic spectrum, and we all work together to carry out this program.”
Teenagers, too, can be shaped by connecting with a horse. Dream Catchers, a program in partnership with Gahanna schools, focuses on high school students who are at risk of dropping out of school. Students spend twenty hours each week at the farm, as part of their school curriculum. They are taught how to take care of and work with the horses which provides opportunities for the students to acquire a sense of responsibility, social skills, self-esteem, and team-building. Jennifer relates the story of one teenage boy. “We have a high-schooler who, according to his teachers, would hide under his desk during school, asking for his mom. Now he’s at the farm every day, cleaning stalls, grooming the horses, joking with the other students, and teaching visiting groups of children how to safely work with horses. In just six months he has been transformed into a different person, and his mother refused a job transfer so that he could remain in the Dream Catchers program.”
Dreams on Horseback has grown from working with 100 children in its first year to working with more than 2,800 children each year. The growth occurred largely through word-of-mouth. The organization works with many Central Ohio agencies, and counts among its partners United Way agencies of Central Ohio, The Ohio State University James Cancer Hospital, Directions for Youth and Families, the Capital Kids, and Columbus Parks and Recreation Department.
Field of Dreams, the for-profit half of the farm, is open to the public. Field of Dreams offers riding lessons, summer camps, hay rides, corporate outings, and birthday parties in order to support the non-profit mission.
Jennifer says that her husband and family are very supportive of Dreams on Horseback. She remembers, “They were definitely surprised when I left the practice of law and devoted my time to starting this organization. But when they came out to the farm, observed the programs, met the staff, and saw the difference it was making to kids, they really understood. They’re incredibly supportive.” Jennifer’s two-year old daughter already loves being out at the farm around the horses.
Although Dreams on Horseback takes up a great deal of her time, Jennifer also works part-time for the Ohio Judicial Conference with the Jury Instruction Committee. She says her law school education enabled her to set up the non-profit structure of Dreams on Horseback and helps her wade through the cryptic and extensive laws on equine liability.
Jennifer says, “The staff at the farm is spectacular. We have eighteen staff members, including mental health professionals, veterinarian technicians, equine specialists and others who first experienced our programs as a participant and then wanted to join in our efforts. The staff is from very different walks of life, but we all share a love of kids and horses.”
Jennifer has always loved kids and loved horses, but she never thought she would one day combine those interests to form a career. Dreams on Horseback is a dream come true for her.