Horseback: Scottsdale Hunkapi Programs offer new views for those in need

At the Hunkapi Program in north Scottsdale nonprofit officials seek to help change perspectives of the afflicted for the better through riding and caring for horses. (Submitted photo)

Sometimes the best medicine is a change of perspective — and the first time a novice rider is in rhythm with a thoroughbred in full gallop some say a new worldview can be gleaned.

Furthermore, the caring and subsequent symbiotic relationship between rider and caretaker of a horse can be transcendental medicine, experts say.

The foundation of this belief sprouted Hunkapi Programs, 12051 N. 96th St.

“It emerged after Dr. Debra Crews completed three years of research investigating the effect of sport on kids with special needs,” said Hunkapi Programs Executive Director Terra Schaad. “Of all the sports she studied, horseback riding had the most positive response on self-esteem and attentional focus. She decided to start a community based program at Arizona State University in 1999, employed me as her program director and we began marketing it to the community.”

What has emerged is known as Scottsdale-based Hunkapi Programs, which is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization seeking to “teach the world to fear less and love more.” The goal of Hunkapi, officials there say, is to teach programs to help those struggling with emotional, behavioral and physical challenges.

Hunkapi Programs is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization seeking to “teach the world to fear less and love more.” (Submitted photo)

“Hunkapi is Lakota for ‘we are all related,’” said Ms. Schaad.

“It was used to explain the bond between the horse and human in the book ‘Horse Follow Closely’ by Pony Boy. The premise is that we all need one another to live and thrive and in the Lakota tradition, Hunkapi is a bond stronger than blood. I chose it because we work with people from all walks of life at our farm, young and older, with physical, mental, and emotional challenges.”

And, since 1999 Hunkapi Programs has been geared toward an outreach organization seeking to help those in need through a conscientious approach to caring for the equine species.

“I’ve never seen a horse not meet a human exactly where they are at with complete acceptance and tolerance and that is the first step to healing,” Ms. Schaad said of the transformational encounter. “We see every day how the horses need the humans and the humans need the horses; complete reciprocity. Every. Single. Day.”

The flight or fight response

For many a flight or fight response can be sparked through the stress of day-to-day duties due to underlying trauma, physical challenge or mental illness. Turns out, horses are the same way.

“Horses are pure in their response to stimulus. They either feel safe or unsafe. If unsafe, they move into flight, fight, or freeze whereas humans have the ability to override that response and can, often times, function in life with a history of trauma for many years,” Ms. Schaad explains. “Working with the horses gives our clients a framework, language, and opportunity to notice the subtleties of the flight, fight, freeze response and the safety to explore if its showing up in their bodies.”

The ability to be present in the moment is an experience one gains often when working with horses, Ms. Schaad explains.

“The horses allow for two things to happen; 1) noticing the fear response in the body and 2) noticing the love response in the body,” she points out. “And, if we’re really doing our jobs, the ability to feel both happening at the same time.”

Chronic illness and dealing with childhood trauma — or otherwise — share a symbiotic relationship between mind and body, Ms. Schaad explains.

“Horses help people living with chronic illness much in the same way as they do with trauma, as being diagnosed with a chronic illness is a traumatic event,” she said. “More simply, however, they allow people to experience joy, presence, the sensation of being able, and not ill, if even for an hour. We hypothesize that quality of life goes up over time with people suffering from chronic illness.”

The goal of Hunkapi, officials there say, is to teach programs to help those struggling with emotional, behavioral and physical challenges. (Submitted photo)

The Charro connection

For 58 years the Scottsdale Charros have been in constant pursuit of improving the lives of Scottsdale residents while preserving the community’s ties to its western heritage.

The Charro Foundation supports the efforts at Hunkapi and a recent $5,000 grant will go toward funding a research study on how efforts like Hunkapi can help those afflicted with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — also known as ALS — might benefit.

In the spring of 2007 Scottsdale resident, proprietor and Charro, Steve Posso’s life was changed forever. Following back surgery earlier that year he began to experience symptoms of what would later be diagnosed as ALS. Mr. Posso died at the age of 51 on Jan. 27, 2015.

At Hunkapi Programs all are welcome to learn the ins and outs of horsemanship nestled amongst the hustle and bustle of the Valley of the Sun. (Submitted photo)

Furthermore, Mr. Posso was not the only Charro to deal with ALS as Scottsdale Charro Jason Heetland told the Independent last summer a total of three members of the Charros have fallen victim to ALS.
Mr. Heetland lost his father, Rick, to the disease as well as did fellow Charro Woody Bueler.

Ms. Schaad explains the recent Charro Foundation grant is fueling the first round of a Mayo Clinic study in partnership with Hunkapi to see if those with ALS can be helped.

“It is the first round of funding for the Mayo Clinic/Hunkapi study investigating the effect of therapeutic horseback riding for patients with ALS,” she said. “The farm and the horses slow us all down, make us breathe a little deeper, feel our feet in our boots, and make our lips smile. Those simple movements alone decrease the stress response in the body, which means less trauma, more resiliency, less stress, more love, and longer lives.”

For Scottsdale Charro Shane Alexander horseback riding is the best medicine.

“I believe that horseback riding provides multiple areas of therapy,” he said.

“Naturally we can understand the physical benefits such as the strength to mount a horse and using core muscles to maintain our balance. I also believe there are psychological and emotional benefits such as gained self-esteem and patience.”

Earning respect, Mr. Alexander says, can help shift one’s perspective.

“Horses have an innate sense of who is in control — earning that respect from a horse can be quite rewarding,” he said. “I’ve attended and witnessed several events at Hunkapi. What I have noticed is they base all of their efforts on a solid set of values. I believe that the Hunkapi Programs directly align with our philanthropic mission as Scottsdale Charros.”

Mr. Alexander also points out the programs and environment offered by Hunkapi is unique in a metropolitan setting like the Valley of the Sun.

“Hunkapi provides a unique service that is not easily reproducible in a metropolitan environment,” he said. “They show respect and cherish the land and animals that help them in turn provide benefit to many in need.”

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Independent Newsmedia Arizona Managing Editor Terrance Thornton can be contacted at

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