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Jan 11, 2021

Shortly after retiring, Michelle Salazar and her partner, John, moved to Fairfield Glade, Tennessee, looking forward to a quiet life. Then, Michelle saw a classified ad in the local paper for a stable lease. Little did they know, when they got the contract, that their horse adventure would change not just their family’s life but the lives of many others as well.

Standing Tall Life Skills Program is unique. Unlike an equine-assisted therapy program, the only therapists at Standing Tall are the horses themselves. Unlike therapeutic riding, Standing Tall is tailored to help kids and adults with physical or learning challenges as well as emotional difficulties, side-by-side.

The Standing Tall program, totally free to participants, teaches horsemanship as well as yoga and meditation, relationship skills, communication and more. The horses offer holistic healing and growth as students establish a bond with the horse they’re assigned to work with through the six-week course.

The results are so profound, the program can’t expand fast enough to keep up with the demand. For Michelle, the results are personal.

Right Place, Right Skills

Michelle has a special relationship with her grandson AJ. AJ was born prematurely, and Michelle took care of him for the first year of his life. She took him to therapy to improve his balance, core strength and range of motion. The therapist suggested therapeutic riding — but they couldn’t find a program that fit his needs.

“Over the years, I looked at several models for therapeutic riding, but none exactly fit the needs of kids with physical and learning challenges along with other kids struggling to be kids,” Michelle said. “My vision was to support both.”

As co-owner of Wildwood Stables in Crossville, which had horses used for public trail riding as well as boarders, Michelle was in the right place to start a hybrid program of her own. She also had experience teaching things like de-escalation techniques, communication and relationship skills from her career training staff at the Federal Bureau of Prisons — experience that added depth and value to her program.

“Soon after announcing the program it became clear there was a void of services for struggling kids,” Michelle said. “Mothers called asking for help, and I responded by developing the Life Skills Program using horses to help students easily understand how to navigate being a teenager in today’s world.”

Standing Tall Life Skills Program launched in 2018, 11 years after Michelle and AJ first started seeking a program. Now, AJ is a thriving 13-year-old and Standing Tall graduate. He’s not the only one whose life has been impacted by the program.

One young boy had suffered a stroke at birth, and didn’t use his left arm. By the second week of the program, he began brushing his horse with his left hand without even realizing it. Each week, his home life improved with his parents and siblings.

“As he began riding, his seldom-used left arm became his hand on the reins,” Michelle said. “The last class, he took a trail ride with his classmates. Then I knew we were on the right track.”

Another little boy arrived one class and proudly announced that he had wanted to hit his sister, but instead went to his “happy place” and did his deep breathing, as Michelle teaches every class before approaching their horses.

“All ‘my’ kids are special!” Michelle said. “My heart skips a beat when one of them runs up to me at the grocery store and gives me a big old bear hug. No better way of saying, ‘I love you.’”

Programs for All

In addition to youth courses, Standing Tall offers adult learning programs and seminars and a leadership skills class that enables students to become junior leaders. Students and volunteers are both given the opportunity to ride and help out at Wildwood.

Michelle believes no one should be excluded because of money, so there’s no cost to participate. 

“It’s only possible because of our 40-strong wonderful group of volunteers, as well as generous donations from individuals, businesses and foundations,” she said.

They’ve been able to add a handicapped-accessible meeting room, an outdoor arena, a greenhouse, new “kid” saddles, and helmets through such contributions. As the programs expand, however, so do Standing Tall’s needs.

Other than one donated horse, Standing Tall currently utilizes the Wildwood Stables trail horses. Their goal is to acquire at least six horses to be used exclusively for the programs, and volunteers are already willing and able to care for them.

Michelle would also like to be able to offer year-round services, either by covering the arena or moving to a new, permanent location, as well as to finish the inside of the meeting room and add water and electricity to the building.

With those goals in mind, Wildwood Stables held its annual Parade of Breeds in September, benefiting Standing Tall. Normally, the event is held each Memorial Day weekend, but was postponed this year due to COVID-19.

The community came out in support of Standing Tall and enjoyed more than 20 breeds of horses presented by boarders at Wildwood — as well as Standing Tall graduates — and raised $2,563. “Many thanks go out to our friends and neighbors that generously give to help the kids,” Michelle said.

Expanding Influence

Now, Standing Tall hopes to heal not just individuals but families. On Sept. 18, Standing Tall began the first Adult Life Skills Program. The new program is tailored to women battling drug and alcohol addictions so they can reunite with their children and stay clean and sober.

The program is held in conjunction with the Sarah Myers Ministry in Crossville. Sarah herself is an addiction survivor whose daughter Lilly recently completed the Standing Tall children’s program. In addition to the skills taught in the youth course, the adult program will include parenting, financial management, working with a life coach and living a life of excellence in Christ.

While Standing Tall’s influence and reach expand, Michelle’s life may take a different course. She recently learned that she is allergic to horses, and undergoes weekly shots to help her cope. “Sometimes you just have to laugh at life’s ironies,” she said.

At 67, Michelle’s goal is to retire — again — and have more time for art and writing. But just as AJ will always be a part of her life, “her” Standing Tall kids, the horses and the Standing Tall mission will always be a part of her heart.

“We are just a small operation, working on a shoestring budget, with local donors and businesses, but we are abundantly blessed,” Michelle said. “With the help of our horses and the vast experience of our volunteers, our kids have hope, purpose and self-esteem.”

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