Horse-riding lessons prove therapeutic for kids

By Amanda Duncan
Posted 12/19/19

Lake Fork Stables, a small equestrian facility in Yantis, opened its gates in 2017 for horse boarding. By 2018, they had overnight facilities and were offering riding lessons on retired racehorses.

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Horse-riding lessons prove therapeutic for kids


Lake Fork Stables, a small equestrian facility in Yantis, opened its gates in 2017 for horse boarding. By 2018, they had overnight facilities and were offering riding lessons on retired racehorses.

Valerie Mellema noticed that in Wood County there was a huge gap in resources. As a retirement community in a low-income area, there seemed to be two extremes – wealthy retired and struggling families. She wanted to meet the needs of both.

She was inspired by a medical student in Oklahoma who was fundraising to purchase riding clothes and equipment and to offer free or low cost riding lessons to children from low-income families.

Mellema had an idea to combine her passion for retired thoroughbred racehorses with her desire to serve special needs and underprivileged kids in the area.

The retired horses would get a chance at a second career rather than being sent to kill pens or auctions. They have been trained as companion animals, lesson horses or for therapeutic riding programs such as the ones Mellema offers.

The children who work with these horses experience decreased anxiety and stress and are more equipped for challenges and changes.

Within a short amount of time, Mellema was offering many programs to the community and visitors and obtaining status as a 501(c)3 public charity.

In October, Mellema launched the Riders Up youth mentorship program at Lake Fork Stables offering free or reduced-cost riding lessons for low income families and high functioning special needs students. 

She has also partnered with Horses4Heroes, a national non-profit program that offers half price lessons to military and first responders families.

The programs are open to children age 6-18 in Wood, Hopkins and Rains Counties. Students learn life skills such as multi-tasking, focus, coordination, balance, memory and more. The lessons focus on safety and horsemanship, and students use an online curriculum that corresponds with the lessons.

Within a week of starting the programs, Mellema had eight students, four of which are on the autism spectrum. The results have been powerful. She has seen her students gain self-esteem, patience and trust. They leave their lessons feeling empowered and carry that over into their daily lives.

“Out here, they’re just normal kids. The horse doesn’t care about differences or expectations,” says Mellema.

For Mellema, it seems everything has fallen into place over the last few years at Lake Fork Stables. They are growing slowly so as not to become overwhelmed or overdo the horses. 

Their operating budget is small, but Mellema is working hard to expand their resources. With a goal to have another full-time paid instructor, she is fundraising and hoping for corporate sponsors who also see the benefit of the program to the community.

She has applied to the Texas Thoroughbred Association Paddock Foundation for a grant. The Paddock Foundation is a nonprofit corporation that advances the care of thoroughbred racehorses after their racing careers have ended by supporting rescue, retirement, rehabilitation, retraining and rehoming. There are only a few thoroughbred rescues in Texas including Lake Fork Stables.

If she receives the grant, Mellema plans to build a proper tack room, install more fencing, get another lesson horse and buy much needed equipment.

Additionally, she is working with a Bluebonnet Feeds representative to get discounted feed which would be a huge financial help.

Within five years, Mellema’s aim is to have five lesson horses and a covered arena to provide lessons no matter the weather.

Learn more about the programs offered at or contact Mellema at 903-366-3052 for more information.