Kids win as SD woman combines passion for God, horses
By Myra Holmes
“Nothing is worse than when we squander the gift God has given to us,” says Angela Mendel. “I think it blesses God when we use whatever passions he has given us.” For this South Dakota woman that means using her love for horses and children for God’s glory and the sake of wounded kids.
Mendel, of Christ Community Church, Sioux Falls, SD, got hooked on horses as a girl riding at her grandmother’s farm. Eventually, she got her own horse and learned to train horses and teach riding. Several years ago, she opened a for-profit equestrian center, but her dream was always to use horses as an outreach.
Her desire to help the hurting springs from her faith and from her personal experience. Mendel grew up in a Christian home and had a sensitivity to the Holy Spirit and desire to help others—especially children—from a young age. “I’ve always had a tender heart for the underdog,” she says.
She has had her share of personal peaks and valleys, including a failed marriage, divorce, remarriage and financial difficulties. So when she meets a child facing rejection, uncertainty, failure or neglect, “I can identify with those.”
During her own valleys, her horses played a part in her healing. “Throughout it all, the horses have been faithful,” she says. “They’ve been such a blessing to me.”
The healing power of animals generally and horses specifically is something of a mystery. But the benefits have been confirmed repeatedly by experience, and so horses are being used more and more in therapies for the disabled and troubled, especially children.
“I’ve watched it many times: A horse that might be difficult for an adult will walk by the adult, walk up to the child and snuggle right up to them,” says Mendel. Unfortunately, many children don’t have anyone else in their lives that will give them that kind of undivided attention, she says.
Given Mendel’s love of Jesus, her passion for horses and her heart for hurting children, it was perhaps inevitable that she would want to combine those passions. About a year ago, she started Hope Reins, a nonprofit therapeutic program for children under the umbrella of Spirit Horse, a faith-based program in Corinth, Texas. Spirit Horse had already “invented the wheel,” as Mendel says, and has proven a rich source of wisdom and guidance.
Hope Reins offers hurting children one-on-one sessions or day camp experiences with horses. “When kids come in, we’re going to first show them love; we’re going to show them Christ,” Mendel says. “Our goal is to be mentors to these children first. Then we teach them about horses, giving them a sense of ownership, belonging and value that they may not be getting in their circumstances.”
Children who come to Hope Reins face all kinds of challenges, including foster care, broken or dysfunctional families, imprisoned parents, learning disabilities, autism, sensory disorders and serious illness. They are referred from hospitals, organizations like Big Brothers or Social Services, churches and individuals. And they are funded with sponsorships, so the experience costs them nothing.
When a child arrives for a one-on-one session, he or she is paired with a horse and with a volunteer who not only has appropriate horsemanship skills but also a love of Jesus and a heart for children. All children are taught certain basics like grooming, riding and safety, but beyond that individual needs determine how the time is spent. “We leave it open to the child and their needs and their hurts,” Mendel says.
Some children are content to pour out their heart to a horse. Some want to walk through the property with their mentor, exploring the farm. Some want to take a trail ride, which Mendel says is a perfect opportunity to talk with the child, listen and show love.
Day camps are run in conjunction with the camps at Mendel’s commercial equestrian center, West Ridge Equestrian Center. Each camp accommodates 10 children, and Mendel has found that mixing the “needy” children with the regular camp kids benefits both, even though nobody knows which are there under sponsorship.
One child last year received Christ through a day camp, which includes devotions and Bible-learning activities. Mendel says that nothing is more rewarding than seeing a child come to faith in Christ, but she doesn’t expect dramatic transformation in every child’s life. It takes time to build relationships, she points out, and the obstacles many of these kids face aren’t easy to overcome. Still, she is confident Hope Reins will make a difference. “Just loving these kids with a Christ-like love is the most important thing to start with,” she says.
In the last year, Hope Reins worked with about 40 children; Mendel hopes to reach out to 100 in the next year. To do that, they will need sponsorships—a huge limiting factor and some of the hardest work for Mendel. She advertises locally and spreads the word through local agencies, businesses, support groups and churches.
Her own congregation, Christ Community Church, has sponsored individual children and supports the outreach through prayer, moral support and words of encouragement. As thanks, Mendel hosts a popular hayride for the church family each fall, which allows attendees to see the outreach facility firsthand.
At times, Mendel admits, balancing her business, outreach and family life—she’s married and has four children—is a challenge. And the needs can seem overwhelming. “We live in such a dark world,” she says. “How are we supposed to shine in a way that they’ll know that it’s through Christ that you get through challenges?”
At the same time, she notes that any outreach worth doing will be challenging, so support and prayer is essential: “We can’t do these things alone.”
Mendel says, “I do love my God, I do love kids and I do love horses. I think combining my gifts with horses and incorporating that into my love for those kids who need Christ is important.”