Photos and story by Cara Clark
The phrase accompanying The Red Barn’s charming logo captures both its essence and its history: “Faith, Hope & Love” and, of course, horses. It took each of those in great measure for Joy O’Neal to stride into the unknown with the courage of her convictions.
“When students are learning to ride, they learn perseverance and determination,” says O’Neal, executive director and founder of The Red Barn. “You’re doing something where you’re a little scared. By learning to do those things, students overcome fears. It’s a life lesson.”
Those words are an apt description for the journey of faith the Mountain Brook resident embarked on in developing The Red Barn, a nonprofit, equine-assisted services facility in Leeds.
It began when O’Neal, who had no riding experience herself, took her daughter Alexis to learn horsemanship in 1998 and set in motion events that would go on to impact hundreds of children with disabilities. While Alexis learned to ride at Anita Cowart’s Heathermoor Farm, the equine expert shared with O’Neal her dream of teaching children with disabilities to ride. Cowart, a longtime Mountain Brook resident, longed to see low-income children and those with disabilities enjoying riding lessons, and coming to know the healing that comes from equine companionship.
“Horses can teach kids so much,” O’Neal says. I knew the skills I saw my own children learning when they were riding horses could help other children.”
Alexis once told her mother that her horse, Pepper, was afraid to walk over water or mud. When the two worked through it and Pepper realized it was no big deal, Alexis used that lesson when she faced a circumstance that made her uncomfortable and learned to push through.
Until Cowart’s death in 2007, O’Neal continued to spend time with her, talking about kids and horses and feeling a higher calling to take action. “She encouraged me,” says O’Neal. “I didn’t know where to start, so I went to UAB and got a degree in nonprofit administration.”
While O’Neal studied the inner workings of nonprofits, her daughter was being introduced to the challenges faced by children with autism in her classes at Birmingham-Southern College. That led O’Neal to contact the executive director of Mitchell’s Place, which seeks to improve the lives of children with autism and developmental delays, to ask if she could put flyers about riding lessons in the lobby. “The next thing you knew, we had 100 people a week coming out to the barn.”
To fund the therapeutic program, the O’Neals sold half of their farm in Leeds they had purchased. A small, picturesque red barn on the property suggested a name for the program. O’Neal and her daughter, with one or two volunteers, began classes in 2012. “Pretty soon, we realized this was far beyond what we could afford to fund ourselves,” O’Neal says. “I still say fundraising is not my strongest point, but it’s the most important way I can contribute.” As The Red Barn programs and popularity outgrew the original funding and acreage, O’Neal couldn’t possibly have envisioned where that initial leap of faith would lead. “Sometimes you’re blessed by not knowing what you don’t know yet,” she says. “We only had two horses in the beginning, and we had more students than two horses could teach. We were creative in doing ground lessons and camps and equine-assisted learning. The person we sold the property to sold it back to us so we could expand our program.”
As the faith-based program prospers on the recombined 33 acres, O’Neal explains that the program’s impact goes beyond equine-assisted services. “Many of the things we do at the farm can transfer one day when students have a job,” O’Neal says. “Our students plant things around the property, clean stalls and do laundry. They learn to make eye contact, to show up on time, and how to troubleshoot. These are skills that can be transferred to jobs in veterinary clinics, landscaping and other industries not directly related to horses.”
Children with other disabilities such as spina bifida later became part of the program. “As our riding instructors and those at the barn became more comfortable with lessons, we were asked about working with our first child in a wheelchair,” recalls O’Neal. I thought, “We can do that. We can figure it out.”
O’Neal consulted professionals, who worked with The Red Barn building a ramp and preparing the horse for the experience of having a wheelchair nearby. “It took about a year, but it was a full-circle, wonderful moment, since the child’s mom had ridden with Mrs. Cowart,” O’Neal says.
The Red Barn also offers programs to veterans and their families through a program named in honor of Cpl. Anthony Clay Ward, who died from suicide after returning from duty. His sister, who was having difficulty coping with the loss, began riding at the barn, where she found comfort among newfound friends.
O’Neal has found a way to overcome each roadblock and answer each request for help by those in need. She is challenged with100 kids on the barn’s waiting list, which “exploded during the coronavirus” as many outpatient rehabilitation centers closed. “It keeps me up at night,” O’Neal says. “That’s how I’ve learned not to hate fundraising. It’s what we have to do to get these people out to the barn.”
“Mrs. Cowart and I had this dream of helping people with disabilities,” she says. “In 2017, my granddaughter was born with spina bifida. What makes this program great for (children with disabilities) makes it great for my granddaughter. I see how God has worked all that together in a way I never would have understood.
Donations are greatly appreciated. Learn more at theredbarn.org