Most Buckhead residents know there are horses in the stables at Chastain Park. But even many locals don’t know about Chastain Horse Park’s true humanitarian mission.
Established over 75 years ago as stables and riding grounds for wealthy horse owners, the CHP is now a licensed ‘equine therapy’ center where people receive help with physical problems, cognitive and emotional by bonding with animals and other riders. And this week, it began work on a two-year, $8.9 million campus renovation to upgrade and expand those programs.
“The magic that happens here with our horses is amazing,” says CHP Executive Director Trish Gross, who ran Buckhead.com during a facility tour shortly before construction began.
CHP occupies approximately 15 acres of city parkland at Chastain Park Avenue and Powers Ferry Road. It’s a private, not-for-profit organization that holds a long-term lease from the city that includes the right – and responsibility – to build and pay for just about everything on it, subject to continue to offer therapy programs.
When the green space opened in 1945 as North Fulton Park, Buckhead was a rural area that was not yet part of the city of Atlanta, and many people owned horses. The park included equestrian facilities, including an indoor arena whose stone walls—likely built by workers under President Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration programs—still stand today.
CHP still offers horse boarding, which is an important source of income, but this is not its main function. Ditto for a large clubhouse known to the general public as a venue for events. And although it is in a public park, the private CHP is not a kind of equestrian zoo where everyone is free to roam. In fact, CHP has become what Gross calls “unfortunately, a best-kept secret” in the neighborhood.
Its real mission is therapeutic programming, which serves hundreds of people each year thanks to a team of 15 people and many other volunteers. These programs started so small in the 1970s or 1980s, Gross says, that no one is really sure of their history. The formation of CHP as an official non-profit organization in 1999 marked the beginning of a serious and nationally accredited program. In 2005, a team of physical and occupational therapists called My Heroes began working there, and in 2011 launched a second equine therapy program at Colorado State University.
The programs help people facing a wide variety of issues, such as cerebral palsy and autism. And a new psychotherapy pilot program will begin this fall. The CHP has specialized facilities and equipment for therapy, such as a lift to assist people in wheelchairs to mount, and a “Sensory Path” with various sensory engagement devices on poles or trees at horse height. There’s also “Elvis,” a mechanical horse used to give therapy clients a taste of riding before trying the real thing.
“One of the tools I use is the movement of the horse,” said CHP physiotherapist Michelle Winer, explaining that the movements can be soothing while increasing the rider’s muscle strength.
Most customers are young people, but about a quarter are adults. And they come from all over – with regulars coming from as far away as Macon – and all income groups. The CHP subsidizes half of the programs and offers full and partial scholarships to those in need.
“It’s not 30327 serving 30327,” Gross said, referring to the posh local zip code. “We are 30,327, making a difference for all of Atlanta.”
The CHP also offers field trips for schoolchildren and at-risk youth, as well as a summer camp program that remains suspended in the event of the pandemic but could return in 2023.
The CHP owns the horses used in the therapy programs, which are selected for their temperament. Many horses are pets donated by individuals – including Gross herself, whose horse Dawson became a member of the team in 2017. Combined with the privately boarded horses – many show horses – the total horse population on any given day is approximately 50 to 60 .
While these programs have exploded, the installations have not. Most of the barns and paddocks date from the 1990s when the association was established and are now inadequate and facing maintenance issues. Many even lack heating and air conditioning. And the staff and volunteers not only work in the barns, but literally in the stalls for the horses.
“Our volunteer lounge is a booth,” Gross said. “The same booth is our kitchenette. The same stand is our volunteer coordination office.
During the recent visit, a volunteer training was taking place in the driveway of a barn, with a screen erected against the barred doors. Given the high-level accreditation and number of programs, Gross said, the facilities are “below what we do.”
Hence the “Healing Through Horses” fundraising campaign which, despite the pandemic, raised most of the funds needed to start building new facilities. Demolition of a barn was due to begin this week, with similar demolitions and rebuilding over the next two years as programs and horses shuttle back and forth. The main facility, Therapeutic Horsemanship Center, will include stalls for 40 offices and numerous human facilities.
New paddocks are also coming, while some facilities, such as the main arena and clubhouse, will remain intact. There will also be accommodation for the on-site manager, Lori Barefoot, who currently lives in a flat above one of the barns.
Some trees are falling, Gross said, and will be replaced with new plants according to city code. Part of the tree removal is required for an improved stormwater retention pond.
The end result will be modernized and somewhat larger facilities to handle an expansion of programs, although Gross says horsepower numbers should stay about the same. The plan includes a barn with boxes for 40 horses. Comparing the project to a hotel, Gross said CHP was not going the cheap route, but also not building anything too fancy.
“We go to the mid-level Marriott, not the St. Regis or Motel 6,” she said.
This is still a colossal undertaking for a relatively small non-profit organization. CHP still needs to raise about $900,000 to complete the work. That’s on top of the approximately $775,000 a year it must raise to maintain its $2 million operating budget. The next major annual fundraiser will take place in October.
A former founder of a West Coast high-energy tech company, Gross is used to raising money in the hard word of venture capital.
“It’s a whole different kind of investment,” Gross said of the CHP fundraiser. “When I fundraise, I ask for an investment…in our community, in our integrity, in ourselves, in our humanity.”
Gross moved to the Chastain Park neighborhood in 2015 when her husband, a Cox executive, moved to Atlanta. A horse lover herself, she fell into CHP and eventually into her leadership role. She is committed to increasing public understanding of her mission and the camaraderie that develops between clients, volunteers and horses.
“We are a community. It’s a horse-centric community,” Gross said. And for those who are there, regardless of the stresses and changes in other parts of their lives, “everyone comes to the barn.”
To learn more about the CHP and its fundraising campaign, visit chastainhorsepark.org.