Hey Dude!

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We are incredibly excited for you to meet the newest member of our herd. Please welcome“Dude.” He is a Palomino American Quarter Horse whose registered name is “Plenty Southern.” After you meet this guy with surfer locks and incredibly relaxed attitude, you will understand how he ended up with the nickname. We of course, love yelling “Hey Dude!” across the pasture.  Or when the kids ask me who the apple is for, I get to say, “My Dude.”  There is just something incredibly fun about that. Yes, I know it is childish, but then again, I never grew up, I just got bigger.

Our new dude is on the larger side around 16 hands, which is exactly what we needed for larger riders (myself included). He is incredible to work with because he loves to please. I can say confidently, he is the most responsive member of the herd. He is currently getting used to his new herd, and the sights and sounds of Standing Oak Farm, but he will be ready in no time to bring his therapeutic skills into action.

Welcome Dude!

2020 In the rearview

Our Little Man pretends to be a fence postSometimes we look in the rearview mirror with regrets, longing or pining for what we are leaving behind.  Sometimes we look in the rearview mirror and we are finally able to take a deep breath, knowing we have left something oppressive or unpleasant behind.  For us, 2020 was a bit of both.  I cannot say I have any regrets.  My parents taught us to bloom where we were planted, so that is how we approach everything.  I can  say that 2020 was not what we expected in any aspect of our life.  I imagine that is true for all of us.

While we fully expected to pick up the momentum of where we left off, that was clearly not the case. Just when we normally start to get busy, the world decided to close.  At Standing Oak Farm, Excel Kids had to approach life a lot differently than in previous years. To better understand the differences, let me provide some background on life pre-COVID.

Our business model is unusual in that our therapy services are funded exclusively by donation (by the families and by donations to the Alice Day fund).  Our goal is to eliminate as many hurdles to therapy as possible.  One of those can be economic.  Families with special needs children have a number of expenses that are beyond what other families experience.  To help ensure that families have access to therapy, we allow them to offer whatever amount makes them comfortable.  As you can imagine, the response runs the gamut.  That is wonderful with us.  That means we are serving families in all situations.  In addition to the therapy we offer other farm events to help defray the costs.  Our Pony Parties, Play Dates, and other group events provide the income to help offset the costs of operating the farm so  it is available to provide therapy.

Life is different this year

Right when our season starts to get busy, we needed to shut the farm.  We remained closed for several months, like most businesses.  Even when we could open, we remained closed for a while out of caution for those in our family that are more at risk.  We used our closed time well and worked diligently on some projects around the farm.  These included

  1. Completing the pony barn (at this point, the only barn).
  2. Grading and fencing the arena (the picture above is our little man pretending to be a fence post).
  3. Working a first crops through harvest.
  4. Moving 100’ of fence 5’ so we could get a hay wagon around the end of the farm.
  5. Completed the mile long trail around the farm.
  6. Had Believe Builders take seal up the outside of the house and give it a first class facelift.
  7. Mostly cleared the area for the future (Lord willing) covered arena.
  8. Goat proofed our therapy paddock (their new home).
  9. Added a dozens of sensory activity stations to the therapy paddock.
  10. Relocated the chicken coop with a new improved run to the therapy paddock.

I am sure there are more, but I cannot recall them all at the moment.  We were thrilled with getting so much work done, but we missed our little friends.

The Kids (and their parents) need their farm time

One of the important discoveries that we made this year is that during time of uncertainty or change, the special needs children are frequently less equipped to process those experiences.  During this particular crisis kids were spending more time at home (or all of their time) and many were in need of a safe change of pace.  This means that their parents and siblings were also likely needing a safe change of pace.  This proved to be true and as the Lord usually does, he prepared us for the needs.  Just as we were getting comfortable opening the farm again, Jamie started getting calls.  A lot of calls.  Every one of them was a family that either looked us up or was referred by someone and their child(ren) needed something.  And so the reopening began in earnest.  Our time since has been focused on a smaller number of children, but many are new regulars and all have been profoundly grateful.  We have also had the opportunity to serve some adoptive and foster families this year.  These types of families are the ones that prompted the idea of the farm to begin with.  Many of these children have experienced hardships, pain and loss in their brief years beyond what most of us will experience in a lifetime.  The farm provides them a great place to just be kids and the families to not worry at all about how the world sees them for a while.  Here, they are free to be free.  That is the point.

Non-profits hit hard in 2020

Lastly, 2020 brought a lot of hardship in the wallet for non-profits.  Donations to most organizations are in decline and many typical fundraisers were not possible this year.  We are blessed that our business model is designed to ensure that our expenses do not outrun what our family can spare to keep it running.  Donations allow us to improve the farm that much faster.  Those improvements are either in the form of therapy facilities (like the sensory stations, arena and trail) or in the form of improvements for our animal teammates.  We are always grateful for support as it helps advance the vision that much faster and reach more families.

Looking ahead

I try not to get too far ahead of myself, but with less than a handful of days left in 2020, I can safely look forward to 2021.  I believe it will begin much the same as 2020 ended (fairly safe prediction there!).  But, I also believe we will be even more necessary in more families lives than the past.  The challenge of meeting those needs is a challenge we welcome and look forward to.  While I am grateful to be looking at 2020 in the rearview mirror, I am also grateful for all of the experiences we had.  We accomplished a lot but most importantly, we gained many new friends.  I am excited about the many more we will meet in 2021!

May your and our 2021 be safe, healthy and immensely fulfilling.  We are looking forward to new and better ways to help.

Thank you for being a part of our family.  At heart we are all Excel Kids!


20200501_144002146_iOSWhat a wild year 2020 has been.  By this time last year we were busy trying to figure out where we were going to find the time to do everything that needed done, and provide services.  Almost all of our service openings were filled and the build projects and maintenance were demanding our spare time.  In January 2020 looked to be an even bigger year.  Then along came a virus.  We have to cancel and postpone many appointments, and finally, we had to shut down the farm.

We are immensely grateful that we are all virus free, and that Standing Oak Farm is such a great place to shelter.  We miss all of our little friends, and freely visiting with folks that came by the farm.  We pray that you are all as safe, healthy and happy as we are.  We are looking forward to being able to open up the farm again to all the Excel Kids family and friends.

We have been putting our quarantine time to good use.  In the coming days, I hope to be able to share a little bit about what has been going here while you all have been away.  The picture above is little sample of what is to come.  The former poultry barn renovation is almost complete.  The picture shows the first piece of the new siding.  While a barn isn’t generally very exciting, it is to use.  Up to this point, it has been a family project (we recently turned over the electrical and final carpentry to professionals) and something we are immensely proud of.  More importantly, though it will enable us to add more variety to our menagerie of animals.

While we have been deprived of seeing so many smiling faces as they enjoy time on the farm, we have been able to get some things done to make your experience in the future even better.  We are far from finished and, because I know my bride, I also know that there will never be a shortage of ideas about how to make the farm experience even better.  We are looking forward to sharing what we have done so far, but more importantly we are looking forward to seeing as many of our family and friends as possible again.

Until then, be safe, be healthy, and be thankful.  Despite being apart, we live in blessed times.

2019 Excel Kids update–Year 1 is done!

Thank you for being part of the Excel Kids family!  We wanted to provide a short update on what has happened over the past year.   We just concluded our first year at our own farm (Standing Oak Farm) and it has been an AMAZING year.  Your support and prayers have been a tremendous benefit to us as we make progress!

Thank you!

Before I get started, I want to extend a special thanks to a few friends that have been particular blessings and have been instrumental in making this happen.

  • Freddie and Alice Guyer – my folks have been a great blessings and enthusiastic supporters of Excel Kids.  Beyond that, they were the ones that put up with me for so many years without giving up.  Their example of love and dedication helped shape who I am.  They are also the primary funders of the Alice Day Fund to directly cover costs of therapy services for families that cannot afford it.
  • Kirk and Marti Leone, Carriage Farm – Marti provided a great home for us for many years.  She was very patient with us and helped us gain the knowledge we needed to have our own equine farm.  This was particularly helpful and amazing given that therapy was not really part of their farm’s mission.  Despite being odd ducks at Carriage Farm, they supported us through it all.  We will always remember our time there with fondness!
  • Gina Miller, Gina Miller Realty – Gina was one of the first folks to hear about our vision at our daughter’s birthday party.  We had no idea what a powerful advocate and supporter she and husband would turn out to be.  They have been with us from the beginning and through the arduous property search, and search again, and search again.  They have supported us with information, contacts and finances.  Gina has proven be a great realtor and even greater friend.
  • Wesley Fowler and Michael King – These two young men provided invaluable work when we needed the most.  Our first few months were hard and fast and they were made more bearable with their help.
  • Alex and Grace Green family– We were blessed to have them live with during the first few months at the farm.  They helped with the work on the farm, the logistics of the household and were just great house mates.  We loved our time with them and the memories we created.

Thanks for staying with me so far.  Without further delay – Let’s get to it!

Fun with moving!

We landed at our own farm on December 20th, 2018.  Apparently, moving is a bit like war (or so I have been told).  You prepare and plan and as soon as it starts, the plan is essentially out the window.  We set the close date to celebrate our anniversary, but as such, we were not actually going to move that day, but wait until after Christmas.  We moved that day.  We needed to get everyone settled and we needed to do some work to prepare for the horses coming over.  We definitely were not going to bring them until the end of January.  We brought them at the end of December.  We were not going to be open for services until the end of February.  We started services a week after the horses came over.  Add to the mix, a new puppy and 2 new baby goats and you can imagine that our winter was CHAOS.  Despite the chaos we managed to get through it with a lot of joy and only a few apologies between family members.  We had the help of some great young men  and with their help were able to transform a tractor shed that had been transformed into a goat barn into temporary horse stalls in time for our fur crew to come home.  The last few days found us working in the wettest winter we have known in North Carolina.

Bringing our equine herd home presented its own challenges.  They have never pastured together as a full herd and the geldings had never pastured with a mare.  After a few experiments and mix options we finally were able to get them all in together.  Bellarose still does not like a stall, but she certainly likes being in the larger herd.  The little boys are convinced she fancies them, and we certainly are unable to persuade them otherwise.

Barn Renovation

Flooded barn with center aisle20190101 Barn RenoOur poultry barn renovation into horse barn has been a work in progress.  The going has been slow mostly because it seems as though there is always something else that needs done at the time.  So far, we have gutted it down to the posts, shoveled out tons of mystery material on the floors, rerun the water lines, poured the center aisle concrete, installed a comprehensive drainage system to prevent the infiltration of ground water, created dry wells under each stall,  and have staged the stall kits in their respective locations.  Thanks to many of you, we have enough funds raised to get the tongue and groove wood to complete the stalls.  After, we finish fencing the winter pasture, we hope to wrap this one up!

Fencing Projects

Therapy Paddock FencedSpeaking of fencing, we have spent a great deal of time replacing the wire fencing with wood fencing.  While the wire is great for the goats, the horses can push through it.  So far, we have fenced the therapy paddock and installed a loading platform, fenced off the orchard, and put in close to half of the winter pasture fencing.  We are hoping to complete that by the New Year.

Hit the Trail

Trail ClearedTrail Cleared 2The other big project of our first year was some forestry management.  We were able to have professionals come in and thin the forest of some of the smaller trees and clear portions of the trail.  We recently completed the trail around the property, so now it is possible to ride around the perimeter of the entire property.

All of the proceeding was progress toward our vision of a therapy farm with an entire tool chest of therapy options..  Every day that we make progress allows us to reach more children in more ways.  Our model is a unique one, but it has also proven effective and sustainable.  Raising special needs children is expensive, physically exhausting and emotionally taxing.  We wanted to provide a place of healing, happiness and eliminate the financial hurdle that many services require.  Our therapy services are provided on a donation basis.  Sometimes families are able to donate for their session.  Sometimes they are not.  Between the Alice Day fund and the revenue from the farm experience and pony parties, we have been able to provide services to every child that has desired it.

In 2019 we hosted over 250 children at the farm.  That makes it all worth the effort.   We are grateful for a fantastic 2019 and we look forward to a even more incredible 2020!

Mail Time!

501c3God knew we need some good news this week.  And, as usual, He delivered!  As some of you know, we have been waiting for some time to receive our tax exempt status.  Woohoo! It arrived today.  Excel Kids is an officially a tax exempt 501 (c)(3) public charity. 

Thank you all who have been helping us along the way.  In this case, we want to especially thank Avi Lev, of Hinckley Allen for donating his time and incredible expertise.  He was very patient and thoughtful in advising us regarding proper completion of the application.  I am positive without his wisdom, we would have ended up in the “needs further clarification” cycle with the IRS.   With Avi’s counsel, we were approved the first time.

It is just one more jump we cleared working toward making the vision of a therapy farm a reality.  We can continue moving forward with other business related items and get this thing going!

Other news

In terms of an update, we have just about completed the work to purchase the land and get the farm started.  There are a few loose ends that we are working through, but our hope is to begin work on the land by October.  We will keep you all posted on how things progress.  In the meantime, please keep praying for us!

Timid-Girl Starts to Trust

Hi all! Oreo here! Sorry, it’s been so long since I’ve written, but they’ve been keeping me pretty busy at training. And when I say pretty busy, I mean REALLY busy.

I’ve learned a lot while in boot-camp. Apparently it’s not okay to step on humans’ feet? I had no idea. *blinks innocently*

But all that I have learned is only half of the equation, my human has to learn along with me… and she’s a timid little thing. On the ground, I can feel her heart beat softly and slowly, but boy howdy does it change once her boots hit the stirrups.

Now that I know what the humans are asking when they kick and gently tug on the bit, I feel much more… calm. Not that I was ever rowdy, psh! But really, knowing what to do has changed everything!

But Timid-Girl was not always clear with what she wants me to do… Her heels and mouth said “go”, but every muscle in her body screamed “I’m not ready!” Really, you’d have thought she was a solid block of ice from the stiffness in her limbs.

And as soon we’d start actually going, her heart would start hammering out of her chest and her hands would fly up in fear. So… was she telling me to stop or go? I was a tad bit confused to say the least.

But how could I assure her I wasn’t going to hurt her? How could I obey and still help her feel safe?

It’s taken four separate sessions of kick-go-stop-kick-go-stop, but I finally feel like I’m starting to get through to her. I may know how to canter now, but I’m still the same horse she sat in the stall with when she was too nervous to talk to the other humans. I’m still the same horse she sobbed into when she was shaken up by one of the crazier horses. I’m still the same horse she fell in love with on a freezing afternoon in January. I’m her Oreo!

I just know what horses are supposed to do with humans now.

But, I trust my Timid-Girl and I need her to trust me too, so we will keep working at it. She now is riding like a piece of semi-pliable wood rather than a block of ice! Three whinnies for progress!!!

Her heart is a little slower to start banging away and her body seems to tell me now that she’s willing to give me a shot. As I hear her tell another human the other day, “I’m not afraid to be afraid again.”

Come on, girl. We’ve got this! We’re a herd!

Macey & Carmalee

I was in a wreck with a drunk driver in 2003 and severely injured my right foot. I spent a year in a wheelchair and had multiple surgeries through 2009. I’d gone from the wheelchair to crutches but could barely walk. My physical therapist recommended therapeutic horseback riding (TR) because he thought it might help me learn to walk better with crutches. This appealed to me since I had wanted a horse since the time I was 3. However we lived in a rural village and there was no place to keep a horse not was there any place to take lessons. As I got older I begged rides from friends whenever I could.

Fast forward 45-50 years and I had applied to all of the therapeutic riding centers within an hour of where we live and finally in the spring of 2010 I got a slot at www.horsesforhope.org . My riding day was Monday and I went from hating Monday to looking forward to it. After 6 weeks of lessons I met a friend for lunch who I hadn’t seen since the beginning them. She immediately said how much better my balance and gait were! As I continued to ride I grew stronger, walked better, and began to feel like I was getting my life back. After a year I had progressed to the point where I could even walk short distances with only one crutch! I really wanted to take lessons twice a week but realized I could free lease a horse, board it and ride several times a week for about the same cost of 2 lessons a week.

So, in April 2011 I got Macey. She’s a grade Paso Fino who Dawn, one of the TR instructors, had just gotten. She had been sitting in a pasture for some time and hadn’t been ridden. The farm in front of her had a boarding space open and so Macey settled in there.

carmalee 3

Macey had also been allowed to develop some bad habits in regards to being saddled and mounted. She’d stand quietly as you laid the blanket and saddle across her back but when I tried to tighten the cinch she would pull back if tied or step away from me if I had her by the lead rope. She never tried to bite or kick, just move away. Then when you finally got the cinch tightened she would move away when you tried to mount. Often just getting saddled and on Macey was an hour long process. But Dawn, who had brought me so far in TR lessons really believed that we would develop a partnership. And she was right! Macey has learned to stand to be mounted from the ground and mounting block. She is much better about not moving off as soon as your bottom hits the saddle.

Although she still doesn’t really stand still to get saddled, she is MUCH better than when I got her. I believe that eventually she will get it. When I first got her the only way she would stand tied without pulling back was if another horse was there with her. And you could not do anything with saddling or she’d pull back so hard she broke halters. She now knows how to stand tied to the trailer or a hitching post all by herself for as long as I ask her to.

carmalee 2

And, she is an absolute gem on the trail. Although I can now walk a little bit without crutches I’d be in trouble if I came off and my horse ran off. But, Macey has never bucked, reared, spun or done any maneuver to try and unseat me. The one time I came off she tripped (for an unknown reason) and went to her knees when we were gaiting. I went head first over her shoulder and she stood there looking down at me as to say “Um, Mom, why are you down there?” Macey crosses anything, pushes through brush, stands while I trim overgrowth back from trails, weaves through tight spaces, stands ground tied, self loads and unloads from the trailer and is just everything I could ask for in a trail horse! Did I mention that she is wonderful?

We’ve done barrel racing, pole bending, cow sorting, parades, carried flags, ridden the Tobacco Trail with all the things you encounter there, fun shows, trail rides, obstacle courses, the American Heart Association Beach Ride, horse camping, and trailered to PA to ride up there. We routinely ride along the road and she’s never shied or spooked from a vehicle even when the driver has done something stupid like blow the horn or gun the engine.

carmalee 4

So that leads back to me. Thanks be to God I am much better! I can now walk a little bit without crutches and a long way (we hiked 4 miles last fall) with crutches. I do well enough with 1 crutch that I can lead horses for half hour therapeutic lessons. Macey lets me run again and when I am on her back I’m just like everyone else. In fact, many people that I’ve casually ridden with don’t realize that I have a disability!

aha carmalee

Please consider supporting Carmalee’s fundraiser for the Heart Association as she rides with Macey http://horsebackbeachride.kintera.org/faf/donorReg/donorPledge.asp?ievent=1129962&supid=408324218

Amber & Anna-May

Beautiful Amber and I met on a farm in North Carolina. When preparing to begin lessons I rode a Quarter Horse. I then transitioned to 15 1/2 hand Amber who is almost pure Thoroughbred. She is beautiful.

When I first began visiting and riding her, I was still recovering from a serious illness. After visiting Mayo Clinic, multiple Duke physicians and sending blood away to multiple institutions, I am informally diagnosed with a rare autoimmune illness. My illness was a neurologic illness that manifested itself psychologically as well as physically. The height of my sickness lasted a few months, until I received treatment that seemed to work wonders for my body. This was only the beginning of my healing. I was damaged in so many ways, losing friends, creating rough memories, and facing a lack of spark for life.

My girl, Amber, entered my life when I was dealing with strong medicine amounts, being self-consciousness about my psychological upheavals of the past, and greatly lacking confidence. The only connection I had with the outside world apart from her was a few hours a week that I would spend volunteering at a local charity, with my immediate family, and an occasional letter or visit with a friend or two every month or so. Often these would be in very controlled environments very different from the all-encompassing heart-to-hearts I was used to.

During my first summer with Amber, I was very silent and afraid. I was burdened by mental confusion and did not know how to handle instruction during lessons. With her, though, I felt instant connection. I would stroke her continuously while riding, feeling her muscles move and feeling the security of her strong legs. I rejoiced in being a brunette with her and saw myself through her eyes of acceptance and love. I brought her a carrot each week (often to the grimace of my instructor). She stole my heart.

My goal for the first few months of sessions was just to enjoy myself and try to develop more self-confidence. I had ridden horses almost every year since the age of 10 as a special treat on my birthdays. Now I got to visit my girl every week.

I continued to ride into the fall and was assigned a new instructor. At first, this disturbed me, but I was ready for a change of pace looking back. My first instructor was a gentle elementary school teacher-type who encouraged me. My new instructor was one who challenged me to reach outside of my bounds in riding. Looking back, changing instructors made me feel Amber was an even more integral part of my life who would not desert me. Other people would come and go, but she was always there to be ridden, accept a carrot, and nuzzle me with a spunky shove.

Once, another horse injured her mildly, and I realized that she could face injury, too. I had a motherly concern for her and the whole week I was away from her, would be up at night wondering if she would be okay. She at that point became my friend and confidante. I now told her how I was doing trying to be outside of earshot of any instructors. I would talk to her with a voice that I feel suited her- a pretty, singsong voice. Her responses were snorts. Yet, they were so beautiful to my ears!

I gradually gained the confidence to progress to trotting for short periods. The moment that posting became second nature, I felt very accomplished. I could truly ride a horse! It was a skill that I was so glad to possess and was obtained through loving encouragement. I then did dressage patterns, challenging my memory for the first time in just over a year. This, alongside a community college course, were some of the first steps in my intellectual recovery. I can’t say that I was glad to be using my brain again, but now am so thankful that I had stepping stones with such soft moss in-between. Amber would complete the tasks I assigned her, working with me as I instructed and took the lead. This gave me extreme confidence in my ability to care for and direct the actions of another.

Just towards the end of this last spring session, I cantered with Amber. The wind in my hair! It was flying and brought me such joy to exercise her in a way that was good for her legs, as well as challenge myself to do something that I was completely uncomfortable doing. It took loop after loop to finally be able to tell her with her surety of my command. It was a great triumph at the end of a full year of riding Amber.

As I have now changed instructors again to a true cowgirl, I spend a lot of time with Amber grooming and connecting with her. I have learned to tack and untack her as well as lead her around the ring. I bathed her for the first time this last week as it was over 90 degrees. The salt came off of her body and I was grounded in physicality. She worked hard for me and I love her.

Oreo’s Adoption Story

Alright well, one of my humans wants the keyboard, so I guess I have to obey and hand it over… aaaanyway, here is my human on my adoption story…

In January of this year, I met Oreo, a chubby little paint with an adorably stubborn disposition. He’d been through a lot in the nine years of life before he met me, but strangely enough all that history is what first bound him to my heart.

I had spent months on Craigslist looking for the perfect therapy horse to begin our dream therapy farm… And I had been disappointed SO many times. Every time I would think I had found “the one”, someone would have their cash on hand faster or be available to pick it up sooner. So, I had almost given up and decided to call the whole idea off, but couldn’t restrain myself from checking the horse listings ooooone more time. I believe everything happens for a reason and I had to hope that God still had my horse out in the world somewhere. That’s when I found Oreo.

A bit of his story was posted on the ad, saying that he had come to Pasture Pals ER due to his owner not being able to afford feed for him. Because of this obvious neglect, this beautiful creature had come to the rescue underweight and out of shape. But by the time I had the privilege of meeting Oreo, he was healthy and ready to begin the next adventure in life!

I held onto his lead rope, full of hope and he answered with a soft and gentle gesture. Burrowing his nose in my hair he inhaled my scent and then exhaled approval. It was there on that frigid day in January that I realized hearts can never truly be full, because each amazing creature that enters our lives gives us a chance to grow our hearts a thousand-fold.

And why should love be limited? It keeps growing! In the past few months Oreo has become even more a part of our hearts and our family. He provides therapy to four of my adopted, special-needs siblings in preparation for his future job as a full time therapy horse!

I noticed recently that a new softness had entered Oreo’s chocolate brown irises. Even underfed and gaunt in his original rescue pictures, I thought him a beautiful horse. But in the soft afternoon glow of sunset, I felt my heart throb with emotion just as it had the first time I had met him. A few months ago, I had met a well-fed, clean, and healthy horse, but in that moment I met something more… a creature willing to forgive what I could not give and teach me to give more than I ever thought possible.

The most beautiful thing about Oreo’s story is that it is cycle of redemption and hope. He came to Pasture Pals ER needing love and nurture. He found his forever home with a family of children who had at one point in time been hurting for love and nurture as well. And in his job as a therapy horse, he will be giving back the love and nurture invested in him to another group of kids that greatly need it!

I imagine with great joy telling children that visit our therapy farm someday, “You see this amazingly powerful and beautiful animal? Well, he wasn’t always so glorious on the outside. He had people hurt him. He had people forget to feed him. He had people tell him that he did not matter. But you know what? He did matter… Just like you.”