By John Schaffner
editor@reporternewspapers.net

Amy Lance is a single mom with four children who are the loves of her life. But her passion is the 150 children and adults with disabilities she oversees each week as part of the Chastain Horse Park’s therapeutic riding program.

Living in Buckhead as a 15-year-old, Lance wanted to keep her horse at the old Chastain Stables, but she wasn’t allowed to because the place was in such bad shape. So the horse was boarded in Alpharetta, a long way from home.

Years later, Lance drove by the stables again one day and said: “This is crazy. This is even worse than what it was when I was a teenager.”

She added: “I wished so hard that someone would do something about it that it turned out it was me.”

She took over the stables in 1999 with a 20-year lease from the city of Atlanta, which owns the land. In one year she rebuilt the stables and practice arenas. She finished a new clubhouse in 2000. Today, the Chastain Horse Park is an Atlanta showplace.

She accomplished all that by raising $1.4 million from relatives and friends and getting a $2.7 million bond from the Fulton County Development Authority. It helped that her father was in the construction business, so she knew something about being a contractor.

Lance started a therapeutic riding program at Chastain Horse Park in 1999 with six students participating each week. Today, she has 150 students participating in the program each week and 350 more who come each year to participate in summer camps, field trips and special events.

More than 600 active volunteers help out with the therapeutic riding programs; in 2007, they logged 8,200 lessons. One job the volunteers perform is that of walkers; they stay with the students while they are on the horses to ensure that an accident doesn’t happen and that someone is there to help if a student has a problem.

Lance could recall only two incidents they had to take care of.

She wants to expand the facilities to be able to offer the programs to more students each week, including starting a program for veterans with disabilities.

The students there represent 100 different disabilities, some she had never heard of a couple of years ago.

“Whether it is a physical disability or a mental disability, that one lesson with that one horse can be customized to focus on the challenges that one child faces,” Lance said.

“We treat hundreds of disabilities with the same action, and they can be any age. We have 2-year-olds up to a 68-year-old. It is not age-specific. It is not disability-specific. It is fascinating to watch,” she said.

A lot of the students come to the program through a parent referral network, and others come through doctor referrals. Every child must have a doctor sign a release to participate in the program.

Lance has 17 instructors who are certified independent contractors, and eight of them teach therapeutic program students. The others teach boarders, kids from the neighborhood or the education program. She requires that all of the instructors at least go through the certification program, regardless of whether they become certified. She said she wants to get to the point where Chastain can conduct training to certify instructors from across the Southeast.

There are 55 privately owned horses on site and 31 program horses owned by Chastain Horse Park. Often a boarder horse and rider will share the arena with a program horse and student. “It is an interesting combination which can, in my mind, be enormously helpful to the therapeutic program,” Lance said. “Because when these kids — especially the preteens, teens and older kids — come out with their disabilities and are up on the horse in the arena and riding alongside someone with no disability, that feeling of normalcy and equality — that I can do what they are doing even though I have a disability — they don’t find that in a lot of their other activities outside the clinic. Everybody is on the same playing ground.”

The 42-year-old Lance’s husband died a year and a half ago, leaving her to raise four children, ages 6 to 14, “and loving every minute of it.”

She works five days a week at the horse park. And while additional programs and facilities are always on her mind, so is raising money to pay for those things and the construction debt.

“That is still at the top of my list, to have that paid off so we don’t have any debts,” she said. It is not operating debt, which she has never had to take on. Every year she pays $275,000 toward the debt, and she would love to use that $275,000 for endowments to expand programs instead.

Corporate sponsors make up 15 percent to 20 percent of the annual fundraising. The nonprofit Chastain Horse Park has a $1.86 million annual budget and $2 million left in the bond debt it needs to pay off to receive grants from some of the larger foundations.

When she took over the facility, vines covered much of the area. Lance turned one of the practice rinks into a covered facility so that if it rained, “a child would not have to wait two weeks for something that is the highlight of their life every week. I couldn’t think of having those kids canceled.”

The horse park charges boarders $1,000 per month, but that is a wash for what it costs to take care of the horses. About 20 percent of the boarders are her biggest donors, she said, “and they wouldn’t be if they weren’t here.”

The largest contributor to the finances of the park is the lesson program for children from the neighborhood. The second-largest net contributor is rental income from the Clubhouse events facility.

Looking to the future, Lance and her board held a “Great Minds” luncheon July 9 at the Clubhouse, with almost 100 invited guests, to discuss ideas for the horse park and the therapeutic riding program and talk about ways to raise more money.

The biggest indicator that Lance plans to do this for some time is her effort to have her 20-year lease extended to 2035 from its present expiration of 2019.