May 25, 2024


Automotive to Us

local charity uses horseback riding therapy to improve lives

For individuals with disabilities, special needs or mental health issues, the simple act of riding on horseback can have numerous therapeutic benefits. SIRE is a charitable organization that specializes in offering this equine therapy to members of the community with a wide variety of special needs. Through the horse-rider bond, SIRE clients experience benefits like increased strength, improved balance, enriched social interactions, increased flexibility, improved coordination and enhanced self-esteem.

SIRE recently opened a new facility in Fulshear, and Joe Wappelhorst, executive director of SIRE, explained how the organization is improving lives through horseback riding.

Tell us about SIRE and its mission.

SIRE was originally founded in Houston in 1985. In our beginnings, our focus was on therapeutic riding activities for people with disabilities, mostly centered around physical disabilities. And then about 15 years ago, we saw that the clients that were on the autism spectrum were really responding beyond the physical and learning a lot of new social skills and verbal communication skills.

We continued to expand that, and today we offer three types of equine assisted services. We continue to offer therapeutic riding for those that will benefit from it, whether it’s physical needs, emotional needs or cognitive needs.

We’ve also expanded into equine assisted learning, which is working with school groups and students to teach them the skills they need to improve their academic performance, whether it’s trust, communication skills or persistence in activities.

Finally – and we’re just starting down this next path- is equine assisted mental health. We’ve had a lot of success working with veterans with PTSD. We’ve also worked with women that have been subjected to some kind of abuse or trafficking. There are all sorts of mental health issues where just the connection with the horse creates an environment where the client is much more open to talking about their issues or unraveling what may be going on in their lives.

How does equine therapy work?

The history of horse therapy goes way back to ancient times. Hannibal learned that the injured soldiers that rode on horseback rather than in carts actually recovered faster, because they continue to work all their muscles. When you’re on top of a horse, riding the horse when it’s striding and walking makes your pelvis and legs mimic walking. So even if there’s a lack of mobility, it actually exercises the muscles as if you are walking and builds the core strength of the abdomen for better balance and stability.

We’ve really refined over the last 40 or 50 years doing this in a more controlled therapeutic setting so that the instructor can guide the lesson when we’re working with a client. We may be working on lots of different physical things. It’s really developed.

Through the last 20 years, there’s been a lot of academic research also on the benefits of horseback riding. But then, as I said, as we move into more of the the equine assisted learning and equine assisted mental health, it’s not necessarily the riding. It’s learning to form the relationship with the horse.

Horses are excellent at that because they are flight animals. They have very few natural defenses against predators. They’re very aware of their surroundings and the emotion that’s coming at them and the behavior that’s coming at them. So when our clients interact with the horse, they have to do so in a controlled way that brings forth the correct responses and learn those communication skills, both verbal and non-verbal.

You’ve just purchased a new location in Fulshear to serve the Fort Bend County area. What can you tell us about the new facility and the expansion of your program?

We started with one location. We had three horses and six clients. Today we have two locations, one located in Spring, Texas, and one located in Fulshear, Texas, and each of those locations sees about 100 clients a week. So we’ve grown quite a bit, serving 200 clients a week. We’ve got 30 horses.

In Fulshear, we just bought a 40-acre property where we’ll be able to expand services, both in numbers and expand out our equine learning and equine mental health.

We had a good partnership with the Richmond state-supported living center for many years, and they had a riding facility where we did our activities. Then COVID hit in 2020, and they had to close down due to state mandates on state living facilities to where we weren’t even allowed on the property at all. We couldn’t keep our horses there or anything. We had to do a little bit of a scramble, and it really showed us the vulnerability of not owning our own facility.

We were fortunate we were able to lease a horse facility from a private individual, but it was with the understanding that this was not a long term solution. Acquiring this new land was a bold action, because we had to spend quite a bit of money- about $3 million- to acquire this property that we could have as our own and utilize under our own management rules but this is a home that we can count on for the next 50 years.

As a 501(c)(3) charity, you rely on donations and fundraising efforts to fund the program. How is that money allocated, and what can people do if they want to help?

To have a rider on the horse costs a little over $5,000. Our highest tuition payment is $2,000. So for every rider we bring on, we have to raise an extra $3000 to $4,000 a year. It’s not a cheap, inexpensive endeavor. And then every horse we bring on costs about $5,000 to $5,200 to feed and take to the vet and train and do all the things we have to do with them.

As we continue to grow, we continue to search for and garner philanthropic support from the community.

We have a great opportunity coming up. Our gala, which we call “SIRE Under the Stars” is coming up April 2 at 6:30 p.m. at the River Oaks Country Club. There’s ticket information and sponsorship information available on our website. It’s a wonderful evening – you start off with a nice cocktail hour and hors d’oeuvres an move onto dinner. There’s a live auction, silent auction and fundraising. We have wonderful music and dancing for the rest of the night. The dress code is “cowboy chic,” and most people from Texas know what that means.

The main thing is that the gala will help us continue this program and really improve people’s lives because of it. We really believe in horses and learning how to ride a horse well. We do that so that each of our riders can live to their fullest. Whenever there’s limitations, whatever they may be, we’re really focused on what they’re trying to accomplish in life.

For more information on SIRE or to purchase gala tickets, visit

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