Healing Through Horse Therapy – Morning Star Cowboy Church
Interview with Mark and Debbie Gould
Growing up on a ranch in Pennsylvania, Mark Gould, Pastor of MorningStar Cowboy Church in Leesburg, Florida, experienced free reign to ride and eventually train horses daily. Since he was a boy, he dreamed of one day entering the Olympics for show jumping. He participated in many competitions and won hundreds of awards in recognition for his prowess. All that changed one early morning on his way to work when Mark’s car was broadsided by a young driver who ran a red light.
That was 17 years ago.
Mark’s accident changed his life and his Olympic goals and trajectory. His injuries were serious. He broke eight vertebrae in his back, had torn muscles and suffered a spinal cord injury. He lost all feeling from his chest down and was bed ridden for two years. His ability to ever walk again was questionable.
His years of physical therapy yielded little progression in his mobility. He had the use of his legs but his movements were slow and he needed a cane to get around. Things changed for Mark when he sought rehabilitation through horse therapy. “I always knew horses had an amazing ability to heal,” said Mark. “Their movements are so similar to human walking that just riding them reconnects your body, gives you muscle strength and stimulates muscle memory.”
Mark believes that his time spent riding horses during his therapy aided his ability to walk again. He remarks that if you were to see him today you would never guess that there was a possibility he might not have walked again. Today he walks comfortably without support. Therapy with horses got Mark back on his feet. “Physical therapy can be torture. People don’t realize how healing and powerful it can be with horses,” says Mark. “When I ride, my mind goes to another place.
His story doesn’t end there. Mark and Debbie married just after Mark’s accident. The Gould’s moved to Leesburg, Florida in 1995 to purchase their own ranch and named it MorningStar Cowboy Retreat.
Debbie, who shares Mark’s passion for riding, also understand the difficulty of living with a disability. At an early age, Debbie was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease that causes her arteries to swell and induces tremendous pain. In 2015 she suffered a stroke and lost sight in one eye. Riding became increasingly difficult and painful for Debbie until, with the help of exceptional trainer and friend Julia Goodnight, she learned techniques that enabled her to continue.
The Gould’s story of resilience and healing gifted them superpowers of empathy and understanding. When they stumbled across Lift Disability Network, their eyes were opened to a whole new world of potential empowerment. Lift, upon hearing about MorningStar Cowboy Church, reached out to the ministry and invited them to bring their volunteers and horses to Lift’s Summer Breakaway Camp program. This was the beginning of a long-standing, impactful partnership.
For the past eight years, the Gould’s have partnered with Lift during Breakaway Camp. The Gould’s bring several of their therapeutic horses to work with the campers and have, first hand, experienced the miracles and joy of transformation.
“The stories we hear are so deeply moving and they are what continues to inspire and motivate us,” said Debbie. “For many people, it’s been a dream to ride a horse. To control an 1100-pound animal, it’s amazing how it allows people to open up and builds their self-esteem and confidence.”
The Gould’s have witnessed many breakthrough experiences at Breakaway Camp. One story was of a young camper who was blind. She wanted to go for a ride, but struggled with feelings of fear and apprehension. With the encouragement from volunteers, she eventually mustered up the courage to reach out and touch the horse. As soon as her hand brushed the creature’s soft coat, she lit up. Once she mounted the horse, she was overcome with fits of laughter and joyful squeals. It was apparent to everyone that she had been given a gift, and she fully embraced the experience.
In another case, a regular Breakaway camper experienced life-threatening pneumonia. During an uncertain time that was both frightening and discouraging, his motivation was to get to Breakaway Camp and ride the horses again that kept him going. He said to Mark, “They almost lost me, but I knew I was going to be back here to ride again.” Stories like this are evidence that empowering experiences, such as riding horses at Breakaway Camp, although seemingly simple – enable people to overcome life’s most challenging circumstances.
Beyond their involvement with Lift, the Gould’s have continued to engage with communities living with disability. Two years ago, the Gould’s started a Special Olympics team for individuals living with disability. They call them Kingdom Riders. The Riders, now close to 300 people strong, participate in the state Special Olympics.
“I think working with people with special needs is one of my favorite things to do,” Mark explains. “To see the impact, we can make on someone’s life – there are no words for that. Our own healing through horse therapy, for Debbie and me, has led us to this exciting opportunity to give back. God has allowed me to share my two passions – horses and helping people.”
For more information visit: http://www.morningstarcowboyretreat.com/
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