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J.J. Jacobsen (in front, second from the left) graduated from the first Standing Tall program last year and will be returning in June as a junior instructor. He is with, in front from left, Michelle Salazar, owner of Wildwood Stables and president of Standing Tall; Diane Graham, volunteer; and Susan Greer-Day, instructor. In the back are volunteers Cindi Beck and Bonnie Jenkins.

John Cannon and Michelle Salazar have seen some amazing things from horses.

As the owners of Wildwood Stables, the couple has watched an autistic child speak for the first time after riding a horse. They have also witnessed severe tremors in a rider with Parkinson’s disease suddenly stop after she was placed on a horse.

“That’s what gives us the greatest satisfaction in doing this,” said Cannon. “Some horse businesses are not run that way.”

The two riders were among 12 graduates of the free Standing Tall program that the couple introduced at their stables last year. The program is designed to nourish the physical, cognitive, emotional and social health of at-risk youth and disabled individuals.

Because of its success, the couple has decided to incorporate the program into a private nonprofit organization that will allow them to help more people. They are also in the final stages of getting their IRS tax certification for becoming a 501(c)(3) organization.

“We wanted to make sure that people in our community knew that this wasn’t a haphazard kind of thing,” said Cannon. “And so by becoming a private, nonprofit corporation and going through the steps to make sure we are doing things properly, we think that’s important to give parents confidence that this program is here to stay and has good creditability.”

Standing Tall will continue to be held at Wildwood Stables, where the couple can use some of their business’s resources for the program. Its new status enables the couple to solicit funds for items solely for Standing Tall and to help cover insurance required to run the program.

“We don’t want people to think anything than what it is,” said Cannon, “which is a program to give back to the community using what we think is state-of-the-art resources and research with the use of horses to help kids.”

Standing Tall is the result of 12 years of research and many false starts, noted Salazar, who serves as president of the program’s board of directors. The couple was inspired to create the program after one of their grandchildren was born premature and started to show signs of developmental delays. 

“Our program is a little different from other horse therapy programs,” she said.

Standing Tall is a hybrid program based on the needs assessment of the students. They teach verbal and non-verbal communication, problem-solving, team-building, centering and coping skills.

What makes the program unique is its focus on life skills. The couple discovered during their research that many children struggle with these. Cannon gave examples of students not knowing how to deal with a bully, what to do when their siblings are frustrating them or how to work in a group.

“So those are some the skills that are taught in a group setting and also individually with using horses as the conduit for showing human behavior,” he said, “because horses mirror human behavior.”

Each session starts with yoga to relax the students and help strengthen the core muscles needed for balancing on a horse. Once on a horse, they do breathing exercises to further relax them and to teach the students to pause before reacting whenever in a difficult situation.

Students are then taken on wagon rides into nearby fields to observe the horses, which usually includes an alpha horse resembling a bully, others who get pushed around by the alpha and then followers of different cliques. Sometimes the rides turn into a problem-solving session with the wagon becoming an imaginary sinking ship and the children working together to survive.

“It’s like magic,” said Salazar. “It just comes together.”

Salazar said the program’s ultimate goal is to teach students how to be independent thinkers and trust their own judgment by thinking things through and making good decisions. They give each student a chance to demonstrate what they have learned during a trail ride at the end of the program.

“The self-esteem that we’ve seen build over those weeks is incredible,” she said.

“And it’s measurable, too, which I think is important,” said Cannon, “because you watch grades improve, you can watch behaviors improve through the lack of instances at school, for example, that kind of thing.”

The couple is excited to kick off a new session of the program on June 6. Children ages 7 and older can participate. The classes, which have be shortened from eight weeks to four and a trail ride, are now scheduled for Thursdays from 4 to 6 p.m. at Wildwood Stables.

They are also offering a two-hour workshop on Wednesdays for individuals and small groups, including veterans, civic organizations and local agencies. It is an introduction to the principles being taught in the Standing Tall program, noted Salazar.

Susan Greer-Day, a certified riding instructor with the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International and director of equine operations for the Standing Tall program, heads the program. A team of well-trained volunteers support the sessions.

Salazar and Cannon plan to offer more Standing Tall sessions throughout the year. In the future, they hope to build an arena for the program as well as buy lighter saddles from the donations they receive.

They already have a fundraiser in the works called the Parade of Breeds. It will be held Sunday, May 26, from 3 to 7 p.m. at Wildwood Stables located at 1450 Westchester Dr. It will be presented by the stables’ boarders and staff, and three Standing Tall students are expected to ride in the parade.

Music by D.J and Donna Garrison will kick off the event at 3 p.m. There will be yard games, a western skit and a kiddy train (cost is $1), and food will be available for Christy’s Pub Grub.

The Parade of Breeds will begin at 5 p.m. Please bring a blanket or chair to enjoy the show.

The event is free, but donations to the Standing Tall program will be appreciated.

Contact Salazar at 200-2195 or Greer-Day at 815-409-6006 to register as a student or for more information about the fundraiser. Information can also be found on their website at www.standingtallcrossville.com and on Facebook.

Missy Wattenbarger may be reached at mwattenbarger@crossville-chronicle.com