Cowboys, Horses Help

Special children get help from Charlie Motley, Marie Leonard


A big part of the cowboy lifestyle and Western heritage is a genuine desire to give back to the community.

In the case of two of the staff at Whispering Hope Ranch, that ethic not only involves volunteering their time, but taking money out of their own pockets.


Charlie Motley saddles up Sugar as Whispering Hope Ranch prepares for another summer of interaction with individuals who face life with challenges such as cerebral palsy, autism, Downs Syndrome, kidney disorders and other impairments.

Charlie Motley and Marie Leonard are bona fide cowboy and cowgirl stock and are currently working toward becoming certified therapists with the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA) for people with special needs.

"My brother was my hero," Motley said. "He was a severely autistic kid and part of the reason I want to do this is because of him."

They said it has taken the better part of a year and more than $400 -- not including time and money driving to and from the Valley -- preparing for certification.

Motley and Leonard already work with the children and adults who visit Whispering Hope Ranch, but want to be certified so they can better serve the needs of the special people they care so much about.

Motley began working at the ranch after suffering a near disabling accident in 2004 that left him unable to ride for more than a year.

Leonard started working at the ranch in 2006 after she ended a relationship in Phoenix and moved to the Rim Country.

She does everything from working one-on-one with special needs guests to shoeing horses.

Yes, Leonard is also a farrier.


Marie Leonard brushes Sugar, a therapy horse at Whispering Hope Ranch, before taking her back to the stable.

Certification requires 24 hours of instruction by an NARHA certified instructor and passing tests.

Leonard and Motley have already completed the required instruction and tests and are just

waiting for the results and certification, which will take place this summer either in Phoenix or at the ranch.

Despite having to pay for certification out of their own pockets, Motley and Leonard said it is worth it.

"This is a wicked deal," Leonard said. "You get to meet so many people and help them."

Whispering Hope isn't a dude ranch or resort where anyone can book a reservation or rent a room for the night.

The ranch caters exclusively to special needs groups, and occasionally individuals, offering therapy using horses to bridge the communication gap that sometimes accompanies people with special needs.

People typically spend anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of weeks at the ranch.

Leonard and Motley said they have seen amazing things happen in such short periods of time.

"There was this one kid who, as far as I know, spoke his first words ever after we put him on a horse," said Motley.

He said the boy's parents were present at the time and started crying when the first words of "horse" left his lips.

Motley and Leonard said it isn't always possible to put special needs people on horses.

"It depends on the individual, sometimes the stimulation is just too much for them," Leonard said.

Motley and Leonard said that forcing someone to get on a horse can sometimes cause more harm than good.

Leonard said it isn't just attitude that determines whether a special needs person should be put on a therapy horse.

She said sometimes a person who has spent so much time in a wheelchair or is bedridden won't have the muscle tone needed to support themselves on horseback and they have to use the horses in a different way.

It's not uncommon for special needs people to open up by just interacting on some level with therapy horses, Leonard said.

"We want it to be a happy experience, not something they look back on negatively," she said.

Motley has his own way of inspiring interaction and happiness from the special people he works with.

"I have a Yee-Haw contest to see who can yell Yee-Haw the loudest," he said.

He said once he can get guests at the ranch to open up a little, it usually ends in laughing and singing.

Between 400 and 500 guests have been known to visit Whispering Hope Ranch during the summer, Motley said.

He said a lot of the people who visit are autistic and it is always a thrill when he can break through a barrier and connect with them, but there are some he never knows whether he reaches them or not.

"When you think you got problems, take a look at these guys and see the positive attitudes and smiles on their faces, then you know you ain't really got any problems," Motley said.

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