By Monica Pryts/Staff Writer
Hidden Hope Ranch lives up to its name -- it's a secluded farm a half-mile down a dirt road in Liberty Township that provides free therapeutic horseback riding lessons to disabled children and adults, making a world of difference for all involved.
"We just realized we need to share and serve and it's just been life changing. You see these kids come out and they're smiling," said Donna Hoskin, who with her husband of 33 years, Bob, have been running the program for about 14 years.
They've lived on their current 40-acre farm for about 10 years and started the program when they lived in the Cranberry area. Their first participant was a very ill boy from their church the Hoskins invited to spend time with their horses, and the joy from that experience led to the couple opening up their farm to others with physical and mental disabilities.
"You couldn't hand us a dollar amount that would equal the amount of smiles and hugs. We make them kings and queens for a day," said Mrs. Hoskin as she was approached by a few of the dozen horses that live at Hidden Hope Ranch, trailed by cat Lucky.
The Bethel Park native is a registered nurse whose husband got her interested in horses; he grew up on a farm in Mt. Lebanon and it didn't take very long for her to fall in love with the gentle creatures.
"I just love animals. It wasn't hard to convince me," Mrs. Hoskin said, adding they both enjoy ballroom dancing.
They began offering free lessons right after they became Christians, she said, noting the Bible has taught them to serve others. They feel so blessed to be able to have horses and a large property to share, and word of the special ranch continues to spread.
"The Lord has blessed us. The only thing in life that makes you feel good is helping others," she said; they are members of Grove City Alliance Church.
Up to 35 participants visit the ranch on Thursdays; the program runs April through October and appointments are required. Each rider wears a helmet and other protective gear and volunteers lead the horses around a trail, parents often walking along with their children.
"It's common ground for them to relax," Mrs. Hoskin said.
Some riders need more assistance than others depending on their disability and the benefits of the therapy are both immediate and long-lasting. The riders sit up straighter, gain confidence, learn responsibility by helping groom the horses and stretch their muscles.
"Their legs go from spastic to more relaxed. It's just amazing," she said of riders with spina bifida.
Some riders and parents are apprehensive at first, especially if they've never ridden a horse or seen one up close, but the animals are well trained and know when they need to be extra gentle, making everyone fast friends.
"I want them to come and learn how to relate and ride a horse and enjoy people," she said, adding she keeps a large book with profiles and photos of each rider to make sure their needs are met.
The Hoskins can't believe how much the program has grown and they would love to accommodate more riders, but need more volunteers.
"They're from all over," Mrs. Hoskin said of the families who visit the ranch; some are referred by doctors or physical therapists while others heard about the ranch from others.
That's how a trio of teenage volunteers from the Mercer area found out about the program and Mrs. Hoskin couldn't say enough about how much she appreciates their help.
"It's like family," said Casey Reynolds, 16, who volunteers with her friends Amanda Meckley, 15, and Miranda Schimp, 15.
The most important thing the Hoskins look for in volunteers is that they make everyone feel welcome and treat each other with love and respect, disability or not.
"Everybody's the same," Mrs. Hoskin said.
That's what the Lane family of Liberty Township loves about the program -- that volunteers, riders and their families have a place like the ranch to make new friends.
"It's kids being kids. It's just total acceptance. The community needs to be like them," Kim Lane said of the Hoskins.
She and her husband Tom have 9-year-old fraternal twins, Emily and Elizabeth. Emily has Down syndrome and has been visiting the ranch for about five years.
"It's the highlight of her week. It doesn't seem like work for her," Mrs. Lane said of how horseback riding compares to more traditional physical therapy.
Since Emily joined the program, she has improved her posture, follows directions better, is more confident around animals and really loves horses, all thanks to the Hoskins.
"They both have a heart of gold. I've never met people like them," Mrs. Lane said, adding Elizabeth is allowed to ride if there's a horse available and the Hoskins throw a big harvest party at the end of the season.
The Hoskins continue to open up their ranch to others because they can and they want to, said Mrs. Hoskin, referring to a George Eliot quote given to her by the mother of a rider who was born with her organs outside her body:
"What do we live for, if not to make life less difficult for each other?"
The feedback the Hoskins have received is always positive, no matter what disability the rider has.
"That's why we keep doing it There are definitely lots of laughs, lots of tears if they're thanking us," Mrs. Hoskin said.
Hidden Hope Ranch is at 125 Old Quarry Road, Liberty Township. Therapeutic horseback riding is offered on Thursdays April through October. For more information or to volunteer, call Bob and Donna Hoskin at 724-458-1231.
Published March 20, 2013, in Allied News. Pick up a copy at 201 A Erie St., Grove City.