Some of the 17 special needs children at Connie Burns’ Equine Children’s Academy in Gilbert are unable to speak, but they are quick to smile and laugh out loud at what they are accomplishing: Learning how to ride a horse.
Perhaps it seems like such a simple task, but the children at the academy, who mostly range in age from 3 to 8, are special needs children with mental disabilities who Burns and eight dedicated volunteers are teaching with a personal touch at the academy which is one of the smaller equine farms in the East Valley at 16805 S. Greenfield Road.
After Burns closed Burnutti Farms, her 20-acre horse riding farm with 85 horses in Orange County, Calif., slightly more than three years ago, she packed up her belongings and brought her two horses Jake and Fancy to Gilbert with the thought of retiring and riding them here.
But after interning at a therapeutic horse riding center with one of her granddaughters, Burns saw what good it was doing for the children and she soon wound up with eight more horses for her mission of operating the academy. The horses mostly are older ones content that their life’s hard work is behind them and don’t mind being ridden by kids.
“My goal is to teach the children independence, responsibility and confidence,” said Burns, 71, who has been riding horses since she was 3 years old. “My whole goal also is to get them riding by themselves. I don’t deal with them as special needs children; I deal with them as little children and take them to whatever levels they can go to. Physically, they get a lot out of it. They get a whole different feel for physical movement that they may not in other physical therapy, and besides, I like to see the smiles on their faces when they’re able to ride the horses. The kids also learn balance and get more of a well-rounded way in physical movement through the vehicle of the horse, or at least I like to think so.”
It all began with Burns’ stepdaughter and son-in-law’s eight adopted special needs children, many of whom Burns helped to teach to ride horses. She also helped teach the children of a Queen Creek couple who have 14 adopted special needs children among their 18 kids.
Today, Burns has 14 horses at the academy which she plans to move to another Gilbert location in less than a month to be closer to her home off of Williams Field Road between Lindsay and Gilbert roads.
“Of all the things I’ve done — and I’ve had 15 different jobs — this is by far the most rewarding one I have ever had,” Burns said. “And money has nothing to do with it — but not that I don’t need it,” she laughed.
Burns said her goal is to grow her business. When she moves into her new location covering two acres, she said the academy will be able to handle up to 50 special needs children.
In two months, on June 7, the Gilbert Chamber of Commerce and the Sign Shop of Gilbert will host a fundraiser for the Equine Children’s Academy at BoomBozz Pizza Taphouse, 1026 S. Gilbert Road. Raffles and a silent auction will be held to help raise money. One of the prizes will be a 10-lesson package at the academy valued at $500.
But the ones who really reap the benefits are the students.
Eight-year-old Audrey Wills of Gilbert, who has spina bifida, already has made a lot of progress since she began riding a horse last year. The little girl no longer wears a brace while riding and she now can run, Burns said.
Sisters Delaney, 5, and Mollie Ushinski 3, of Mesa, who have epilepsy and autism respectively, also are blossoming through Connie’s patience, kindness and experience, their father, Joe Ushinski said. The Ushinskis heard about the academy through their caseworker with the Department of Developmental Disabilities. The girls have been involved with academy for about two months.
“It’s been great to see them take to this in their own way and grow socially,” Ushinski said. “We’ve had the girls in other activities, and it’s hard for them to stay focused, but this has been something they’re both excited about and engaged in. They’ve learned how to act around the horses. They talk to the horse, and the horse listens. If they want the horse to go, they know they have to tell him what to do.”
But after hearing Burns talk about the academy and the accomplishments of the children, it’s hard to tell the difference between the teacher and the students.
“When I think of what I’ve gotten or learned from these little children, it’s amazing,” Burns said. “Sometimes, you see what the children can do, it makes you cry. Some can’t even speak, but they can smile and some can laugh out loud. It warms your heart and you know you’re doing something really good for the children.”
“I don’t want to be an executive director or work at a larger riding center,” Burns added. “I want to personally reach as many children as I can, and I don’t want to be so large that I lose the personal touch. I always want to be part of giving the lesson.”
And in many ways at Equine Children’s Academy, it has been the other way around.
It’s been the children who have been teaching Burns lessons as well.
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