Every Thursday morning, a group of mentally delayed adults is transported to Reality Ranch in Zolfo Springs. As many of seven of the special participants arrive from a group home in Wauchula. They have come to participate in Jessica Heath's therapeutic riding program.
"We sit down and say hello," said 35-year-old Heath, who has long, dark hair and a quiet way about her. "A lot of time we'll have grooming. They groom the horse. They lead the horse in a circle. They like to interact (with the animal)."
Heath said three participants are able to ride the horse - a trusty old quarter horse named Timothy. "When we ride, we focus on their balance, sitting straight on the horse," she explained. They also practice fine motor skills like finding clips hidden in the Timothy's or another horse's mane or clipping a piece of paper to the mane itself. They also do arts and crafts.
The program is one of many activities offered at the ranch, and Heath is assisted in running it by residents of Lydia's House, a home in Wauchula for women coming out of destructive lifestyles.
Heath has seen the benefits of the program to developmentally-challenged children and adults. She recalled a 9-year-old autistic boy who seemed to open up around the animals. He began speaking more and showing excitement when it was his turn to ride. "He was growing with the horse," Heath remarked.
But Heath has done more than just watched others grow and heal through hands-on time with the gentle beasts; she has experienced a bit of horse healing herself. She has been running the program since August of 2011, but she was first introduced to it when she became a resident of Lydia's House three years ago.
In 2008, Heath's mother committed suicide. "That threw me into a depression, and I started abusing pain pills very heavily," Heath recounted. In 2010, she attempted suicide herself. It was her sister who helped her transition from a New Jersey mental hospital to the Christian women's shelter in Florida's Heartland.
"I love it here," said Heath of Hardee County. During her one year stay at Lydia's House, Heath said coming to the ranch to volunteer with the therapeutic riding program was her favorite activity. She had always loved horses and had a horse growing up in Tequesta. She had barrel-raced as a young teen.
After graduating from Lydia's House, Heath stayed on as a house mom and was eventually invited by ranch owner Randy Johnson to work full time on the property, caring for the 10 horses, four ponies and approximately 30 head of cattle, as well as helping out with maintenance on the 47-acre ranch. Johnson described her as "a godsend."
Heath now lives on the ranch and is getting back into barrel racing again. The once troubled young woman's face lights up as she talks about her racing times and the horse she is in the process of buying, named Scorch. "That's my passion," she said of barrel racing. "It's awesome. You become one with your horse. Just learning to trust your horse."
She makes some extra money doing housecleaning and said she would love to eventually go to school to study horse therapy. Her move to the area and the events that followed her crisis were "such a God thing," Heath shared. "I am learning to always put God first in my life, and he'll make your path straight."
She said the Lydia's House motto, "push through" has inspired her to face her challenges. "Sometimes we get in the way of what God is trying to do. It's a choice every day."