Karen Stollmeyer-Matthews with a therapy animal at Horses Helping Humans on the North Coast Road, Maracas Bay. Makeup by Shenelle Escayg, photography by Mark Lyndersay.

Originally published in Express Woman, June 11, 2017

My name is Karen Stollmeyer and I am a Hippo Therapist.

Although certified as a Speech-Language Pathologist, and having spent 7 years immersed in the field in the United States, I decided to return to Trinidad in November 2003 to pursue my passion for teaching yoga and meditation. I opened Bliss Yoga Studio in Woodbrook in January, 2004.

After spending years working with people who were coping with severe disabilities, I wanted to teach people about health and wellness, disease prevention and rehabilitation, all of which can be accomplished through the practice of yoga, meditation and yoga therapy. However, I also knew that I wanted to do something in order to give back to the differently-abled community in T&T.

Hippo therapy, which is therapeutic horse back riding given by a Speech, Physical or Occupational Therapist for children with special needs, is something that I had discovered while working as a therapist in Miami. As a life-long equestrian and lover of horses, it was the perfect combination of both my passion and my profession.

I attended a conference in Colorado that was held by NARHA (North American Riding for the Handicapped Association now PATH), and immediately knew that this was something that I wanted to do. Upon returning to Miami, I founded Horses Helping Humans with a riding instructor with whom I was working and riding. However, due to the difficult logistics of running this type of business, it only lasted about 3 months.

Even in that short time however, I was able to see the positive benefits in the clients that we saw. Although I remained a dedicated rider I did not think that hippo therapy would be something that I would be able to offer in the future.

Upon returning to T&T, I became so immersed in teaching yoga and seeing clients for yoga therapy, that it did not leave much time for horses nor riding. One day however, I learned from my aunt about a horse who needed a home. My cousin owned a horse named Uni who was no longer able to jump competitively and needed to be retired to a good home.

Although I had no intention of owning horses again, nor of starting a hippo therapy center, something about Uni and her story stayed with me. Day after day, I could feel her presence and as hard as I tried, I could not get her out of my mind. Then one day, instead of resisting it, I decided to simply say “yes”, and offer to adopt her.

Karen Stollmeyer-Matthews with a therapy animal at Horses Helping Humans on the North Coast Road, Maracas Bay. Makeup by Shenelle Escayg, photography by Mark Lyndersay. Click to enlarge.

I thought maybe I could give my friend’s son with special needs, Isaiah, hippo therapy to see how that would help him. At that point, I still had no intention of founding HHH, simply to help Uni and Isaiah.

Once we had adopted Uni, we introduced Isaiah to her, and watched in amazement at his obvious joy while interacting with and riding her, and I knew that this was something special. A few weeks later, we began seeing our first autistic client, a 4 year old boy named Kyle, and continued to watch as this very special therapy began to improve the lives of both the kids and their parents.

The effects of this therapy are almost magical, as the children open up and vast improvements in all areas of their development can be seen. After having only 2 or 3 therapy sessions, Kyle’s mother was able to begin potty-training him, and he began to use words where before he was non-verbal. More and more children began to find their way to us, and soon we were seeing kids with cerebral palsy, Down Syndrome as well as autism.

After about a year of being in operation, and due to the success of the therapy, my husband Ernie Matthews and I decided to officially register Horses Helping Humans as a local NGO in 2013. We were also blessed to receive two of our current therapy horses from Mr. Derek Chin, Storm Street and Boogie Blues who were both legends on the racing circuit due to their incredible careers.

One of the things that HHH aims to do, is to provide a new lease on life and career for ex-race horses, who unfortunately are often disposed of once their racing careers are over. We acquired three more horses, Eleanor for Two, Edmundo (now deceased) and Luna Divina, all of whom were race horses or brood mares prior to coming to us, and two small ponies, JoJo and Rainbow, who are the stars of our show!

In 2012, we were fortunate to receive our first corporate grant to provide free hippo therapy to 20 children with autism from low-income homes, a program that is now supported and funded by the Ministry of Health.

Along the way however, we experienced many challenges, set-backs and obstacles, as funding for children with special needs is something that is a constant challenge, not only for our organization, but for all organizations who are catering to the differently-abled, and we often wondered if we would be able to carry on due to the lack of funding.

By the grace of God however, and with the help of our sponsors we have been able to sustain our program!

HHH was a dream which has become a reality, and one that gives help, hope, love, acceptance and joy to so many who are marginalized by our society, and I feel extremely blessed and privileged to be able to work with these magnificent creatures and the children who so effortlessly share their hearts and souls with everyone, regardless of their ability.

The production of the Footsoldiers segment of the Lioness Project series, highlighting the experiences of 12 workers in the disability field, is supported by the Cause an Effect Organisation, the Massy Foundation and A Very Special Disabilities Forum