Community - DonateSmarter

“...and God had a different plan.” Hippotherapy: Therapeutic horseback riding...and then some. Marilyn Peterson – Parkwood Farms Therapy Center, Snellville GA.

“...and God had a different plan.” Hippotherapy: Therapeutic horseback riding...and then some. Marilyn Peterson – Parkwood Farms Therapy Center, Snellville GA.

I do what I do because...is an interview series with individuals I’ve met through my work in nonprofits. I ask them to finish the statement “I do what I do because…” and I listen. I reproduce their words with little editing in hopes that they may inspire you or someone you know. They inspire me. by David G Drake November 2019



Hippotherapy: Therapeutic horseback riding...and then some.


If you’ve ever had a challenging day or questioned your purpose as I have, you may have heard the adage “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.” This is a story of laughing right along and finding purpose.



“I do what I do because….” 

Of my youngest son Julian who I adopted when he was sixteen months old. He had severe autism …Pretty much “profound autism”…Didn’t acknowledge anyone around him, couldn’t eat, couldn’t do anything. Couldn’t even sit up by himself. He had to be placed in a sit… Couldn’t even come out of a sit. 


You had to position him. He was... he was, it was just like he was shut in a cage for the first sixteen months of his life…and pretty much … I think he was.


I can remember the first time [we met] he was crying, and I went to reach and tap him, console him on the back and he just screamed, he started screaming… 

It started to become clear how badly things had been for him…. So…for all those reasons, I started to pursue how to make his life better and enrich his life.


And we did every type of therapy known to man. We did speech and OT/PT play, whatever it was… and none of it worked the way … once I found the horses… Therapeutic riding… that was it.


Hippotherapy: Therapeutic horseback riding

Actually, we were seeing a speech therapist who’d just gotten involved in hippotherapy and she said, “Why don’t you come out and try it?”. 


So, I got Julian involved and he thrived. He was probably just a little over two then… not only did the horseback riding therapy make him want to engage with you - like... I need to get over there and get with those horses – 


The movement of the horse therapy helped him focus and be able to do things that he wasn’t doing just sitting still on the ground. The movements, the size, the warmth... plus, he had a lot of sensory problems... so the feels and smells of the horses helped… the horse was the therapy! 


The magic of Therapeutic Riding

Therapeutic riding also transferred over in to all the other therapies that we were doing. So not only did the therapeutic riding work independently but also all of a sudden, all the other therapies got better. 


So, when we started – we lived by Stone Mountain - if you know anything about Atlanta traffic - We were traveling at four o’clock on a Friday night over fifty – five miles away – that’s how important it was. 


So then once I saw what it was doing for Julian, then I sold my home and said, “I know how to take care of horses” and we moved to our current location. My original [plan] was to provide the facility where people who were certified as hippo-therapists could come... and I was gonna go off and be the Chiropractor and ummm, God didn’t have that plan [laughs]. God had a different plan…


God didn’t have that plan

I sold my house and closed on our location in February 2002 and we opened May 1st, 2002 and we had three or four horses and we had Therapists, OT’s, PT’s and speech language pathologists, mostly young women, and they would come, and we had horses and volunteers. 


Well as the therapist’s lives’ lead them away with babies or husbands or vacations etc.… Well…the families would stay with us. 

I think my connection with the families was… more than therapeutic riding… I lived in their life, I knew what it was like to leave my job and have to go home to a child that tantrums and destroys things and has feeding issues and behavioral issues, so it wasn’t like I left their kids and went home to my “perfect” family.So, I identified with them on a very basic level. And they identified with me. So, we’ve been going non-stop with Parkwood Farms Therapeutic Riding Center for seventeen years. 


I do what I do because….

It works... Therapeutic riding works every time. I’ve seen it work for Julian and I’ve seen it work for every single child. 


Over those seventeen years, I’ve seen almost fifty children a week now. So... literally hundreds and hundreds of children have come through that front door, through that gate and ridden our horses and it impacted every single child’s life in a positive way. 


It may take longer to get some on [their horse] y’ know, some others run up and jump right on. 


Therapeutic riding helps the families too. 

The parents and grandparents, the other siblings. At some point they admit it to me or they say something... and if you live with autism in your life, you get it. Sometimes it’s the only thirty minutes that that family has to totally relax. Their kids are safe… and they can relax and enjoy.


Parkwood Farms Therapy Center is more than a therapeutic riding center…. We’re a family. I see the therapy in therapeutic riding goes between the rider and the horse, the volunteer (handler or walkers) and the horse, the rider and the instructor and the family.


We have 100% volunteer based nobody gets a paycheck and I have volunteers who are… I have one volunteer who is a two-time cancer survivor who asked me if it would be ok [laughs] if she could continue to come when her hair fell out because she didn’t want to scare anybody… So, the beauty of it is that another volunteer had her grandmother knit hats she could wear so she could continue to give literally hundreds of kids their lesson each week… just beautiful people.


My philosophy is just keep comin’

My philosophy is just keep comin’ and we’ve had people who’ve lost their jobs and had hard times but I say just keep comin’. I’m not gonna deny these kids of what they need. We’ll figure it out. We tie them back through sponsorships and a peer to peer page. We help them tell their stories. Their stories are our story.


You can put a kid on a horse, and they’ll scream like crazy and sure enough, it goes away and it always does… and they open up and they smile and they laugh and they get to be proud because they try new things and they grow right before your eyes. 


And it spills over to the rest of their lives… and to their family’s lives. It literally changes their lives. I’m collecting testimonials and I don’t even realize how far it goes until I read these stories from the parents, the families, their extended families, the volunteers and the community.”


Don’t ya just love an underdog story...

I found Dr. Marilyn Peterson, via LinkedIn several years ago because of her story. I had just read a “David and Goliath” post about big bad bank moving to foreclose and on a therapeutic riding facility, Parkwood Farms.


I read about her son Julian and his profound autism and her volunteers. I even watched a video shot by a local T.V. Station on her behalf. And I was still skeptical. So I did what any skeptical donor should do… a google search! And I called her. “Hello, this is Doc,'' she answered.


I introduced myself to Dr. Peterson and told her that I’d read her story. I told her, “I can’t write you a check, but if you can make me believe your story, I can help you tell it a million times and maybe someone will hear it... maybe 50,0000 people will hear it, and just maybe they can write you a check.” And she was gracious (and desperate) enough to talk with me, so I listened.  


Doc had me about 30 seconds into the conversation. We talked for over an hour and I went into UnderDog mode and asked her “what do we have to lose?”


Clarify your story and tell it over and over

I helped Doc clarify her story and we used DonateSmarter to get the word out. We only met occasionally through skype to strategize. We used her cell phone camera at no cost and made a corporate and a thank you video. 


We used DonateSmarter to maximize her state and federal compliance as well as give her the free fundraising tools to engage students and their families so they had control over the expense of their therapy moving forward.


Marilyn “Doc” Peterson is the real deal. In computer terms she’s a WYSIWYG; “What you see is what you get”. Her authenticity shines through in all she does. It resonates.


She’d done lots of other things to raise money and awareness about Parkwood Farms. Yet, about four months into our friendship, Doc called asking “how much do I owe ya?”. She explained that she’d been able to satisfy the bank because of an individual investor who had heard of her troubles through a friend who had seen one of our videos, so she wanted to know, “so what do I owe you?”.


The purpose for being here... 

Doc Peterson has the heart of a lion, and a Mamma lion at that! She and the other selfless people like her in the founder-run end of the nonprofit industry, provide the safety net our communities depend on. 


They give depth to our neighborhoods by providing vital services to our friends and neighbors on a daily basis, not in exchange for a paycheck but as fuel for their passion and as the answer when they question the purpose for being here on earth. 


My currency exchange theory and the true value of local charities

If you’ve ever traveled between countries with different currencies, you are familiar with the idea of exchange rates. Simply put, depending on a million factors which no one has time to understand, the value of currency in the place you are leaving is different than the value of the currency in the place where you are going. And you must find the currency exchange or else...


We live in a world thirsty for data and impact and driven by dollars as the currency. Charities, on the other hand, operate in a world driven by stories and where date and impact are the currency. 


DonateSmarter allows charities to provide the stories (data) and impact required to quench our thirst, so we can invest our currency (dollars) in charities with confidence and so charities can keep providing their currency (Impact and vital services) business can’t and government won’t. If you’ve ever had a challenging day or questioned your purpose as I have, consider this...


While we may never know how far it goes, like the ever widening ripples that result from throwing a penny in a pond to make a wish for change, DonateSmarter provides the Doc Peterson’s of the world who are making change a simple way to report back to their penny-tossing supporters and investors with real time data to demonstrate their true impact in our communities.


Can a smile on one child’s face years ago change your world today? Will Doc Peterson’s purpose and drive to make a difference in Julian’s life, make the world better tomorrow? I’d say it already has. But don’t take my word for it, invest in a local charity and see for yourself.


“You must be the change you wish to see in the world” 

  • Gandhi 


Leave a Comment