DRY RIDGE, Ky. – Call it a mission, a passion, a lot of work… whatever you call it, Jody Keeley said, it just gets into your skin.
It’s not a hospital. It’s not a sit-down, one-on-one therapy session. It’s fun.
That’s how Keeley, a 54-year-old mom, grandma, teacher and equine therapist, refers to equine therapy at her non-profit Lovesome Stables in Dry Ridge.
For wearing all those hats, and at least one saddle, and for overcoming “significant personal obstacles,” Gov. Steve Beshear honored Keeley recently with Kentucky’s Challenge Award.
“It’s been said that a lot of people doing a little bit can make a big difference,” Beshear said to Keeley and 14 others honored in August. “You have shown that one person doing a lot, can cause a wave of change.”
But the recognition isn’t why she does what she does.
“It is my life. It’s just what I do. [I] do it for the love of human beings.”
Keeley, who at one time wanted to be a veterinarian, is a PATH International certified equine therapy instructor who has been helping children and adults excel on horses for eight years. She works with about 50 riders with an array of special needs, including autism, ADHD, fetal alcoholism and traumatic brain injuries. Her riders range from 4 to 72 years old.
Lovesome, she said, is where “everyone is welcome to horse around.”
“I just love them,” Keeley said. “You can do a lot of things with [horses],”
Lovesome, which means ‘a warm embrace’, has been Keeley’s dream for as long as she can remember. And while starting a family and a career shifted her priorities, she never forgot about one day opening a stable dedicated to those with special needs.
It’s a place where those with needs more severe than most, can come, laugh and horse around, while building their confidence and abilities.
“The outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man.” - Winston Churchill
“Everybody gets something different out of it,” Keeley said about riding horses. “They’re very calming and therapeutic to me.”
Horse therapy, she said, “makes you think outside yourself, caring for another creature.”
Riders not only saddle up, but they also bathe, feed and brush their equine buddies.
“They may not be able to connect with a human being but they can connect with a horse,” she said, giving an example of one rider who has autism and hugged his horse.
Riding and caring for the horses, she continued, gives her riders the tools to be more sociable, interactive, independent and learn how to follow through with goals.
Autumn, the daughter of Gina Bailey of Rabbit Hash, Ky., has been in equine therapy since she was 4. Her horse, Fancy, “helps relax her and gets her excited about things,” Bailey said.
Autumn, now 10, rides in the Special Olympics and has better speech since being around Fancy, her mom said. She also attributes her improved posture to riding.
“She can sit up straight on the horses and she doesn’t do that anywhere else,” Gina said. “She’s more sociable with animals and is becoming more sociable at home.”
“Watching her grow and improve,” Gina said is the best part of the years of watching her daughter ride.
Keeley can relate to parents like Gina, because her daughter also has special needs.
Jody starts her day bright and early at 5:45 a.m.
For the next 30 minutes she gets her daughter Hannah, 25, who has special needs, ready.
After she sees her off on the bus to Redwood, she heads to the stables to feed her 10 horses.
By 7:15 a.m. she arrives at work, where she’s a teacher for pre-kindergarten special needs students at Kenton County Schools.
Leaving a long day at school, she heads home to fix dinner for Hannah, clean up, do the dishes and then its off the to stables to clean stalls, feed the horses and give therapeutic riding lessons.
The late-August evening is a scorcher. The sun beats down on the sleek backs of the horses just outside the cool confines of Lovesome Stables. But for Keeley, the sweat rolling down her face is just gleam of her selflessness and the reflection of the joy she is able to give to others who need a special kind of support.
“We sweat. We’re hot. We’re dirty. But it’s fun,” she chuckles.
After an extensive, bittersweet day, she returns home to make out her next day’s lesson plans and grade homework before hitting the hay herself around 11 p.m.
“It’s a good tired,” Keeley laughs.
Horses, Hannah and acceptance
Keeley is a mother of four, a grandmother of four and a caregiver to Hannah, who functions like a 3-month-old and is on a feeding tube.
She was born with lissencephaly, which means ‘smooth brain’—a genetic brain malformation, where her brain stopped developing after five months in the womb.
Keeley remembered that when Hannah was born, a neighbor told her that she wanted to pray for her family. But she didn't know how to pray or what to pray for. She said that the woman finally came up with a prayer for acceptance.
“She prayed for our acceptance of Hannah. For who she was and what she was to become,” Keeley remembered. “Years later, I realized how that prayer was answered and how our family has accepted every twist and turn of Hannah's life.”
But Keeley’s life’s twists and turns and overcoming her own obstacles has allowed her to not sweat the small stuff and to help others strive to do the same, all while helping them to achieve their fullest potential.
At Lovesome, she said, she and her fleet of volunteers try to accept everyone for who they are; the good and bad. You can be yourself here, she said.
“Lovesome hopes to be a positive calm oasis amid a crazy world,” she said. “I guess that what horses are to me.”
Situated on 50 acres, Lovesome Stables, which moved to its current location in May and is funded through donations, grants and riding fees, is run by nearly 70 volunteers, Keeley said.
“We couldn’t do anything without them,” she said about her volunteers, some of which are the parents of the riders in her classes.
During 2013, 58 students with disabilities, ranging in age from 5 to 72, participated in the equitherapy program, aided by more than 60 volunteers.
In addition to the equitherapy program, 15 teens and adults with disabilities attended the summer farm camp with the help of 20 volunteers. Sixty adults with disabilities from North Key Community Care joined the summer camp.
On Sept. 28, 15 of Lovesome Stables’ athletes will compete at the Special Olympics in walk-to-trot and trail riding.
Keeley hopes to eventually retire from teaching and run the stables full time, as well as open an adult day care, a veteran-specific therapy program and a summer camp next year.
Lovesome Stables will be holding a golf outing fundraiser on Sept. 20 at Twin Oaks in Latonia and a ‘meet and greet’ on Oct. 5 at the stables, located at 242 Boltz Lake Road, Dry Ridge, Ky.
Photos by Jessica Noll | WCPO
Northern Kentucky Voice: Your Voice, Your Story is a periodic and ongoing series on WCPO.com about the people of Northern Kentucky making a difference in their community. If you would like to tell your story, or know someone who should, email Jessica Noll at Jessica.Noll@wcpo.com.